International platform for disarmament and non-proliferation dialogue, research and education

Workshop on Nuclear Security

On 14 September 2016, the VCDNP held a high level half-day workshop on nuclear security. The purpose of the event, conducted under the Chatham House rule, was to provide a frank and open forum for representatives at the ambassadorial level to discuss nuclear security issues in advance of the International Conference on Nuclear Security, to be hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in December 2016. The objective of the workshop was to help facilitate a positive and substantive outcome at the December conference.

Five questions, each presented by an invited representative, were posed during the workshop to stimulate facilitated discussion on the comprehensiveness of the global nuclear security regime; the regime’s role in more explicitly addressing nuclear security in connection with radiological sources; the exchange of non-sensitive data between States; the universal acceptance of international security objectives; and the role of the IAEA in assisting with the elimination of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in civilian use. Participants were encouraged to share their views on all issues, focusing in particular on the IAEA’s role in each of the discussed areas.

The forum began with a discussion about whether or not the global nuclear security regime can be made more comprehensive. During the ensuing dialogue, some participants agreed that a more comprehensive regime should be pursued, as all-inclusive approaches are necessary in addressing current challenges. It was remarked that greater synergy between nuclear security, non-proliferation, and disarmament were key to achieving greater comprehensiveness. Also highlighted was the need to address nuclear security as it relates to nuclear materials in non-civilian use. While some participants suggested that further discussion on this issue take place during the December conference, others questioned whether the December conference would be the appropriate venue to discuss such sensitive matters.

The group was then asked to discuss ways in which the global nuclear security regime could more explicitly address nuclear security in connection with radiological sources, such as colbalt-60 used in cancer therapy units. Representatives attending the workshop from the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Division described how the Agency’s Technical Cooperation programme had integrated systems meant to provide support to states who possess Category 1 through 3 sources (cobalt-60, which is classified as a Category 1 source, is considered the most dangerous of radiological sources). This assistance is meant to help States secure such sources, as well as to provide training and regulatory advice.

The third question facilitated a dialogue about mechanisms used to identify and exchange non‑sensitive data regarding nuclear security implementation. Most participants agreed on the importance of data sharing among States and believed it to be a subject that deserved more attention in the current nuclear security conversation. The group discussed what data and information, if any, States should consider exchanging. Some participants noted that information on a State’s nuclear programme was sensitive, as it directly related to a country’s national security concerns. As such, it made sense that some States were reluctant to share this information. One participant proposed that information regarding best practices and guidelines be shared, but that facility specific procedures, capabilities and technical systems remain within the purview of national security information. It was explained that information sharing existed on a spectrum from general information, which is less sensitive and easier to share, to more specific information that is sensitive and more difficult to disclose to other parties.

Discussed next was the feasibility of achieving more universal acceptance of international security objectives, standards and guidance. To begin the conversation, one participant outlined the current global nuclear security architecture and how it contributed to achieving universality. The entry into force of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) was mentioned, as well as the need for more countries to ratify and join the treaty. In support of this objective, one participant mentioned that the Points of Contact meeting in November 2016 would serve as an opportunity to reach out to countries that had not yet ratified the treaty. Also mentioned was the importance of INFCIRC/869 and how a State’s acceptance of this document displayed its commitment to nuclear security implementation. Participants also spoke of the role played by non-governmental organizations, civil society and industry in developing best practices for nuclear security.

Participants then discussed the role, if any, the IAEA might play in the elimination of HEU in civilian use. This led to a general conversation about issues surrounding HEU. One participant noted the development of a propulsion system that utilized low enriched uranium as a fuel source, rather than HEU. Another participant highlighted the fact that the generic uses of HEU had become limited and that now HEU was only necessary in unique situations. The concept of HEU free zones was also raised, eliciting mixed opinions about its usefulness. Some participants expressed concerns about establishing such zones, arguing that doing so could tie the hands of future generations who might find valid applications for HEU. Others argued that establishing HEU free zones was necessary to advance nuclear security efforts, as it eliminates the potential for terrorist and other non-state actors to acquire such material.

The formal part of the workshop was followed by a working lunch to continue the conversation and discuss ways to ensure that high-level engagement on nuclear security issues continue. During this informal discussion, it was mentioned that high-level decision makers should be encouraged to participate in nuclear security efforts. This would allow bureaucracies at the working level to have greater access to senior decision makers, as high-level officials would seek their expertise and knowledge on the subject, in preparation for conferences and workshops dedicated to enhancing global nuclear security. Others emphasized the usefulness of junior diplomats attending nuclear security events, as it allowed them to report back to their capitals and better inform senior decision makers on security matters. As a final suggestion, one participant suggested that the IAEA hold a parallel nuclear security event in connection with the General Conference to further promote high-level engagement on the topic.

The workshop ended on a high note, with individuals thanking the VCDNP for providing a useful and stimulating forum. One participant highlighted how essential such an exchange of views was in supporting nuclear security efforts, and others noted that there were more similarities in opinion among participants than differences. This realization brought with it hope that the IAEA’s December conference would prove to be successful, and would further advance the role nuclear security plays within the international security framework.