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International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

The IAEA was created in 1957 in response to the deep fears and expectations resulting from the discovery of nuclear energy. The IAEA Statute, which 81 States unanimously approved in October 1956, outlines the three pillars of the Agency’s work: nuclear verification and security, safety, and technology transfer. This session will simulate the IAEA Board of Governors. In order to facilitate a simulation in four days, the simulation will focus on two issues: Measures to strengthen international cooperation in nuclear, radiation, transport and waste safety and Application of IAEA safeguards in the Middle East. The Agency will write resolutions to cover these issues.

Nuclear and radiation safety Nuclear and radiation safety

As nuclear technology continued its rapid development after World War II, the international community and the newly-formed United Nations became increasingly concerned about the consequences of nuclear radiation. Nuclear and radiation safety involves the implementation of proper operating conditions, prevention of accidents and mitigation of accident consequences, protecting workers, the general public and the environment from undue radiation risks. Beyond generating electricity, nuclear technology has other useful and peaceful applications, including in agriculture, medicine and consumer products. One of the primary goals of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since its founding in 1957 has been to ensure that Member States can utilize the benefits of nuclear energy while strengthening international cooperation in the areas of nuclear, radiation, transportation and waste safety. The risks inherent in nuclear power are high: Environmental and water contamination, high-level or prolonged human exposure to radiation, and the theft of nuclear materials by non-State actors all threaten the legitimate and peaceful use of nuclear materials. Although only 30 countries maintain a combined 443 operational nuclear power reactors as of 2019, disasters know no boundaries, and a singular nuclear incident can impact millions of people.

Prior to 1960, there was no convention on liability for nuclear waste incidents, leading to ambiguities in State responsibility. States with nuclear incidents had no clear standard for safety, incident response or victim compensation. In 1960, the international community negotiated the Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy, addressing a major area of nuclear safety. The Convention, which entered into force in 1968, sets standards for liability and compensation for damages caused by accidents that take place during the production of nuclear energy. Other strides made toward outlining nuclear safety and liability also include the 1963 Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage and the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC). Together, these aimed to increase the amount of compensation available for financial protection against damage resulting from certain peaceful uses of nuclear energy. This was a promising first step for taking responsibility in the event of a nuclear safety incident, though only 43 States are party to the CSC and only 16 States are party to the Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy. Additional protocols to the Paris Convention were added in 1964, 1982 and 2004, with increasingly fewer signatories: The additional protocol added in 2004 only has two States Party.

The first major test of nuclear safety arrived in 1986 with the reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which set the tone and focus at the IAEA for the following decades. The Chernobyl disaster exposed staff and emergency responders to nuclear radiation and yielded long lasting effects that continue to affect communities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The United Nations increased measures taken to strengthen international cooperation in nuclear safety and radiological protection in response to the Chernobyl event. They also requested that States share nuclear safety related information to prevent another Chernobyl-like disaster from happening. These efforts led to increased safety measures, as well as the Convention on Nuclear Safety, decreasing the likelihood of disasters associated with poor construction standards and lax safety protocols.

The IAEA launched the Global Nuclear Safety and Security Network (GNSSN) in 2007 as a virtual community designed to assist the dissemination of nuclear safety standards and expertise at the national, regional and global levels. The GNSSN acts as an umbrella organization, coordinating the work of the disparate academic institutions, national laboratories, industry groups and regional bodies involved in nuclear technology. This work is instrumental in achieving a core goal to foster the exchange of scientific and technical information on peaceful uses of atomic energy as described in Article III of the Statute of the IAEA. While successful coordination of this process speaks to the dedication of the Member States of the IAEA, it also illustrates the crucial role of digital-age technology in disseminating information at truly global scales.

Much of the current work of the IAEA is focused on lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident. A comprehensive June 2015 report on the incident underscored the importance of creating a global framework for mitigating the vulnerability of nuclear facilities to external events. An unresolved challenge identified during the Fukushima Daiichi accident is the need to effectively coordinate and disseminate accurate information to the public during a nuclear emergency. After the disaster, the IAEA prepared an Action Plan on Nuclear Safety. The Action Plan aims to improve international nuclear safety through cooperation and information sharing between national authorities and technical experts. Under the Action Plan, the IAEA has facilitated peer reviews and capacity building programs for Member States planning to embark on a nuclear power program. The IAEA has focused on improving emergency preparedness and response in addition to ongoing technical work on developing standards and training related to nuclear safety to prevent accidents.

The IAEA continues to work with related United Nations bodies, committees and working groups on efforts that bridge the Agency’s safety and technology transfer functions. One example of such collaboration is the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and its work through the Nuclear Safety and Security Online User Interface platform that provides Member States with information and policy recommendations that support them in using atomic innovations safely. Through the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action program, the IAEA is exploring nuclear and radiation medicine to limit the spread of future pandemics. The expanded role of radioactive technology in agricultural, research and industrial fields highlights the need for proper control of sources and safe management—especially in relation to domestic and international transportation and export. Addressing the need for increased capacity building among Member States and availability of funding toward pursuing peaceful nuclear technologies is key to the organization’s goals of improving the safety and security culture at all levels. As interest in nuclear research continues to grow, previous technologies are needing to be replaced. The International Energy Agency expects between 200 and 400 commercial and research reactors globally to be decommissioned by 2040 due to the increasing age of nuclear fleets. This has intensified the request by Member States for the IAEA to develop specific training materials and support on the decommissioning of facilities. The IAEA is particularly concerned with ensuring appropriate waste management. The IAEA recognizes increased collaboration among Member States and stresses the importance of Member States to set up a national strategy for education and training regarding nuclear and radiation waste transport and waste disposal and ensure multilateral operations and training are in line with national requirements.

One area needing more attention is the transportation of radioactive materials by land, air and sea. While there has not been a major accident during the transport of radioactive material outside the national boundaries of an IAEA Member State, the growing demand for radioactive materials, as well as increased development of nuclear power programs, is likely to increase the volume of radioactive materials shipped internationally. Although the IAEA created the Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material in 2018, there is still a pressing need to establish requirements for the safe handling and transportation of radioactive material, and to equip regulators with the tools to enforce them. Ensuring that the country responsible for transporting radioactive materials, as well as countries near and through which such materials move during shipment, are informed and prepared to respond in the event of an accident poses challenges for IAEA coordination. This is a primary IAEA concern, especially when considering those Member States not party to all of the past conventions.

Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:

  • How should the IAEA balance its role with supporting the development of innovative, peaceful nuclear technologies while promoting a global culture of safety and limiting the risk of nuclear accidents from occurring?
  • What steps can the IAEA take to ensure that Member States have the support, resources and technical capabilities necessary to manage decommissioning aging nuclear reactors?
  • How can the IAEA and the international community promote safety in the transportation of nuclear and radioactive materials, especially in cases where hazardous materials cross borders?
  • How can the IAEA continue to make measurable progress in fulfilling its mandate, given the reality that not all Member States are party to past conventions, treaties or agreements?

Bibliography Bibliography

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Nuclear security Nuclear security

Nuclear security involves preventing, detecting and responding to the theft, sabotage, unauthorized access or illegal transfer of nuclear and radioactive materials. Today, nuclear security encompasses the protection of nuclear and radiological materials and facilities through their full life cycles, and has necessarily expanded beyond questions of physical security to include problems such as cybersecurity and insider threats. The International Atomic Energy Agency has used its mantates to inform and advise to educate its regulatory and industry partners, encourage the sharing of best practices, and ensure States’ legal and regulatory codes uphold their international commitments as enshrined in various agreements. The IAEA continues to assess that a number of Member States are failing to adhere to best practices, and that emergent technologies add to the complexity of ensuring the security of nuclear materials and facilities. While there has yet to be an attack using illicitly acquired radiological or nuclear material, the international community and malicious actors have both long recognized the unique threat—physical and psychological—that such an attack presents.

The IAEA published its first version of its Recommendations for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material in 1975, which was followed by the international community’s adoption of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) in 1979, focused on the international transport of nuclear material. The 1975 Recommendations promoted measures to prevent the unauthorized removal of nuclear material, locate and recover any in the event of its loss and minimize the risk of sabotage to facilities. The Convention promoted legal reforms to prevent the diversion of nuclear material from regulatory control, set standards for the safe transport of nuclear materials and encouraged both information sharing and legal cooperation. While revisions were made to the Recommendations in the years that followed, it was two decades before the IAEA and international community revisited this subject in depth.

Following high profile terrorist attacks and various smuggling incidents throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, States became increasingly concerned about the risks of nuclear terrorism. Among the smuggling incidents, the most concerning at the time were the seizures of highly enriched uranium in Bulgaria in 1999 and France in 2001, which led intelligence experts to worry that thieves inside of Russia stole a nuclear bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium. The Security Council had previously stressed Member States’ obligations to prevent the proliferation of any and all weapons of mass destruction, but spurred by these events, the Council adopted Resolution 1540 in 2004. Resolution 1540 focused on countering State support to non-State actors that sought to develop, acquire, transport or use weapons of mass destruction.

The IAEA worked in parallel to the Security Council and published its first comprehensive plan of action for nuclear security in 2002, which included the creation of the Nuclear Security Fund, a voluntary funding mechanism set up to help Member States implement the 2002 plan. The IAEA began regularly publishing these Nuclear Security Plans (NSPs) as a means of highlighting Member States’ priorities for the Agency for the years ahead, outlining planned projects and activities to address those priorities, and reviewing the progress achieved during the previous plan. However, IAEA’s planning documents do not include guidelines for prioritizing its nuclear security activities, and some nuclear security programs lack baseline performance targets, limiting the IAEA’s ability to measure program outcomes.

The international community also adopted two additional significant measures in 2005. The International Convention for the Supression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism criminalized the possession, use or threat of use of radioactive devices by non-State actors, and promoted domestic and regional regulatory and legal reforms that complemented the IAEA’s work. Adopted around the same time, the Amendment to the CPPNM expanded states’ responsibilities to secure and protect domestic nuclear material and facilities, responsibilities that included promoting the coordinated, rapid response to any stolen or smuggled nuclear material, critical to preventing or responding to illicit diversion. The CPPNM and this Amendment, along with relevant aspects of the Security Council resolutions and the International Convention, serve as the legal binding elements of the international nuclear security framework.

With the increasing integration of computers and sensors to manage both the function and security of nuclear and radiological facilities, the IAEA in the late 2000s began to wrestle with how to best benefit from these important technologies while protecting these facilities from cybersecurity attacks. Cyber actors could hack into facilities’ networks to steal nuclear materials or even attempt to sabotage the facilities. The threat moved from fear to reality in 2010 with the discovery of the Stuxnet attack on the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Iran. The Agency published its first technical guidance on the subject, Computer Security at Nuclear Facilities in 2011. Protecting against cyber threats is a difficult challenge, as many attacks take advantage of undetected and novel flaws in the design or management of networks. The pace of cybersecurity threats and the diversity of digital systems used globally in nuclear facilities means the IAEA continues to educate States, industry and civil society of the threat; promote information sharing among these partners; and sponsor research to both promote systemic resilience and hardening against the cybersecurity threat. It is a cross-cutting issue that also affects the IAEA’s work in detecting unauthorized acts involving nuclear and other radiological material, securing its own information and ensuring confidentiality, and responding to nuclear events—major areas of IAEA activity during the 2018–2021 Nuclear Security Plan (NSP). As the IAEA reviews the performance of the 2018–2021 NSP and prepares its 2022–2025 plan, how to ensure the Agency’s timely response to the cybersecurity threat, while staying vigilant for other novel and familiar threats, will remain key foci.

Among the most pressing challenges facing nuclear security and the IAEA moving forward are insider threats, a risk that has become even more potent amid the COVID-19 pandemic. An insider threat is an individual with authorized access to a nuclear facility and material who could attempt unauthorized removal or sabotage. They could also assist an external adversary in gaining unauthorized access. Insider threats are dangerous because they possess unique access, authority and knowledge about nuclear facilities. Although the IAEA first published guidance concerning preventative and protective measures against insider threats in 2008, more recent incidents—including an insider attack at the Doel-4 nuclear power plant in Belgium in 2014 that shut the plant down for months and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in economic damages—demonstrate the risk of insider threats. In response, the IAEA has emphasized the need for advanced, practitioner level training on insider risk mitigation to address risk at the national and facility levels. The IAEA further suggests that security and confidence-building programs to conduct performance tests, self assessments and peer reviews could improve the performance of insider threat mitigation efforts, although due diligence is critical to avoid the release of sensitive site-specific information that could exacerbate insider risks—underscoring the need for a holistic approach to protecting against insider threats.

Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:

  • How can the IAEA best balance using advanced technology to operate nuclear facilities while promoting systemic resilience and ensuring their security from cyberattacks?
  • What areas of emphasis should be included in the IAEA’s 2022–2025 Nuclear Security Plan?
  • What steps can the IAEA and Member States take to reduce the risk of insider threats? How can States more effectively build trust to use peer reviews as a confidence-building and security tool?

Bibliography Bibliography


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