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In Vienna, a Focus on National Responsibility for Nuclear Materials Security

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Ernest Moniz, shown speaking in April. The Energy security addressed a U.N.-sponsored nuclear security conference on Monday in Vienna, Austria (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta). Ernest Moniz, shown speaking in April. The Energy security addressed a U.N.-sponsored nuclear security conference on Monday in Vienna, Austria (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta).

WASHINGTON -- Countries participating in an International Atomic Energy Agency conference on Monday released a joint statement emphasizing the responsibility of individual nations to lock down vulnerable nuclear materials, despite calls for more comprehensive international regulations by outside groups.

As expected, the joint document released at the start of the weeklong nuclear security conference in Vienna, Austria, did not embrace the creation of any formal new rules that would bind participating countries. At the top of a list of 24 principles that signatories support is “that the responsibility for nuclear security within a state rests entirely with that state.”

Nuclear watchdogs expressed disappointment over the scope of the document on Monday.

"I would say that this declaration does not give a lot of hope that IAEA ministerial meetings are the way to move forward the nuclear security agenda -- it's pretty boilerplate," said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The declaration does, however, stress “the importance of international cooperation in supporting states, upon their request, to fulfill their nuclear responsibilities and obligations.” It also encourages nations to fully implement existing international accords, including the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and a 2005 amendment to the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

The United States is among the outliers to the two agreements. Though the House of Representatives approved adoption of both in May, Senate passage remains uncertain. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has previously opposed the relevant legislation because it lacks provisions that explicitly apply the death penalty to nuclear terrorism cases, and an anonymous Senate Republican put a hold on the same bill last year. 

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz acknowledged the U.S. status of these accords on Monday, saying the Obama administration is “seeking Senate action to complete our domestic implementation procedures as soon as possible.” He also noted other U.S. shortcomings on the nuclear security front, including an incident last year in which an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists were able to infiltrate the Y-12 National Nuclear Security Complex in Tennessee.

Speaking at the Vienna conference, Moniz described the incident as “humbling” and “unacceptable,” and said the United States has “made -- and will continue to make -- important changes to ensure that these types of events do not happen again.”

He nonetheless posited the United States as a leader on nuclear security, citing President Obama’s recent speech on arms control in Berlin and his calls “on the global community to build a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power.” Moniz also noted the White House “intention to host another Nuclear Security Summit in the United States in 2016.”

In a report released at the outset of the Vienna conference on Monday, nongovernmental organizations praised progress that had been made of the Nuclear Security Summit process that the Obama administration initiated in 2010. Nonetheless, it said “the largely nationally focused efforts to date are inadequate” and advised that “leading governments must begin building the framework for a cohesive international nuclear security governance system.”

The report, issued jointly by the Arms Control Association and the Partnership for Global Security, catalogues actions that the 53 countries that participated in the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea have taken since the meeting.

It says that 44 countries have hosted nuclear security workshops, conferences or exercises and 22 have taken steps to “prevent the smuggling of illicit radioactive materials by enhancing transport security, expanding border controls and developing new detection and monitoring technologies.”

Still, “the current system lacks universal reporting requirements and standards, making it difficult to assess the overall progress of the summit process,” Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation analyst for the Arms Control Association, said in a Monday statement.

Lapo Pistelli, deputy minister of foreign affairs for Italy, said the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan showed both the need for international security standards and the relevance to nuclear energy.

“Once again we are reminded that the consequences of a nuclear accident know no borders,” Pistelli said in Vienna on Monday. “We must therefore redouble our efforts towards the adoption of common rules and stricter international standards, the exchange of information and transparency, the adoption of international review mechanisms.”

The United States has in the past been reluctant to address nuclear energy as part of the summit process.

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