Nuclear security strengthened and internationalized

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flies in front of its headquarters in Vienna.

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flies in front of its headquarters in Vienna.

A new document that will reduce the risk of a terrorist attack involving nuclear material is coming into effect.

The world has grown a notch safer this week, diplomats say. An amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) entered into force on Sunday, May 8, 2016, the IAEA announced. This amendment legally binds states to protect nuclear facilities and nuclear material throughout their life span, criminalize any form of sabotage – be it theft or smuggling of nuclear material – and exchange information in the field through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“It has taken us nearly 11 years to get here,” Yukiya Amano, IAEA Director General said at a ceremony to unveil the new international convention in Vienna on Friday, May 6. “Entry into force will reduce the risk of a terrorist attack involving nuclear material, which would have catastrophic consequences. The world will be a safer place as a result.”

Long road to security

The system of international law is moving slowly. The original Convention was adopted by 152 states in 1979 and entered into force in 1987. It stipulated that states, which bear full responsibility for the protection of nuclear material and facilities, should also protect them during international transfer. As increasing numbers of countries began developing their nuclear programmes, more and more nuclear material began to circulate around the world, and the risk of some of some of it falling into the hands of potential terrorists was growing.

In 2005, an amendment to expand the convention’s regulations to domestic use, storage and transportation was adopted, while placing the coordinating burden on the IAEA. That was perceived by some states, particularly developing countries intent on building peaceful nuclear industries, as stepping on their sovereign rights. It has taken 11 years for two thirds of the parties to the convention to ratify the amendment. The required number of 102 nations needed to ratify the agreement was reached ahead of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington at the end of March, which Russia did not attend.

“It’s taken time for states to reach the conclusion that it isn’t just a domestic issue,” Laura Rockwood, director of the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-proliferation, told RIR. “If there is a problem with nuclear security in your own country, it can be a problem globally. And this chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

“Russia was the first nuclear weapons state to become party to the amendment, so they have been a big backer of this for some time now,” said Rockwood. In fact, setbacks in the U.S. contributed to the general delay. Rockwood said it was due to the “difficulties of working within a democracy where different branches of the government have different priorities and interests.”

Further developments

“We assume that the amendment and strengthened convention will become even more effective in fighting nuclear terrorism and illicit trafficking in nuclear materials,” Ambassador Vladimir Voronkov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, said. The Russian approach, he said, has been that all other nuclear security instruments, such as cyber security, nuclear detection and forensics, have to rest on the improvement of physical protection.

In December 2016, the IAEA will hold a high level conference on nuclear security. “Russia intends to be present at the ministerial level,” Voronkov said.

Placing high emphasis on the coordinating role of the IAEA in the nuclear security field is consistent with the Russian policy of strengthening the organization as a legitimate and inclusive international mechanism where all member states are involved in the decision making process.

In an interview with RIR on the sidelines of Friday’s ceremony, Voronkov stressed that because of the series of nuclear security summits initiated by the U.S. and to the active involvement of the IAEA, the entry into force of the amendment guarantees that nuclear security is part of the IAEA mandate. This was an issue that was up for discussion even a few years ago.

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