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ICONS 2020: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly … Actually, Mostly Good

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It was a busy and exciting week for NTI staff who
participated in ICONS 2020, the third International Conference on Nuclear
Security hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held on
February 10-14. We hosted events, presented on panels and in poster sessions,
staffed the NTI booth, and Tweeted up a storm.

Important progress was made during the ministerial segment
of ICONS– the first two days of the conference dedicated to government
deliberations—as evidenced by strong national statements and a forward-leaning
ministerial declaration. But perhaps my biggest takeaway was the positive
energy during the conference. There was an air of excitement and optimism that
I hadn’t felt previously, and I credit it to enthusiasm about the new IAEA
Director General, Rafael Grossi.

In my preview
, I promised a post-ICONS review. The conference has taken some
time to digest, particularly as it required going through all the national
statements, but, in the spirit of better late than never, here are some highlights.

NTI by the Numbers

I’ll start with some highlights of NTI’s participation in
ICONS. NTI was out in force with six staff members making up our delegation.
Here’s what we were up to:

  • Participation at 3 side events on: assessing trends in nuclear security in the context of the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) review conference, sponsored by the Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG);improving radiological source security, sponsored by Finland; and women in nuclear security, co-sponsored by NTI, the World
    Institute for Nuclear Security, and World Nuclear Association. 
  • 1 project launch reception for the Voices of Nuclear Security, which highlights the experiences of nuclear security professionals around the world, including 15 Voices of Nuclear Security posters. Follow @NuclearVoices on Facebook and Instagram and use #NuclearVoices to share your stories.

For more details on these presentations and papers, see here

New Energy at the IAEA

One of my favorite moments of ICONS 2020 was Director
General Grossi’s informal remarks and toast at the Director General’s reception
on the first day of the technical sessions. The short remarks by Grossi, who
assumed office in December 2019, felt more like a coach’s pep talk to his
football team in the final minutes of a tie game than a formal speech. I mean
this in a good way. His inspiring words were a rallying cry for the nuclear
security community to work together for a common cause: strong nuclear security
to prevent nuclear terrorism and to preserve the benefits of peaceful use of
nuclear technology around the world. It was an exciting moment.

Grossi is energetic, creative, and likeable—and also smart
and pragmatic. His dynamic personality and deep experience across many areas of
multilateral diplomacy and nuclear policy should provide a huge boost for the
IAEA. By all accounts, he has hit the ground running. He has taken an inclusive
approach to his outreach by engaging not only with governments, but industry,
NGOs, development organizations, and the scientific community, among others. He
is also is looking carefully at how to strengthen the organization he now
leads. He has outlined a proactive and robust vision for the IAEA: seeking more
diverse funding sources, improving coordination and communication between the
IAEA and others and within the IAEA itself, and promoting a more inclusive understanding
of the relevance of nuclear security in countries around the world. His opening
at ICONS is a worthwhile read.

Welcome Progress at the Ministerial Segment

In my ICONS 2020 preview, I suggested some metrics for assessing
whether the ministerial segment was a success. The bottom line: A lot of
progress was made compared to 2016, with a stronger ministerial declaration
that included some truly exciting innovations. However, there is still plenty of
room for improvement.

Participation of ministers: I identified the number
of delegations represented at the ministerial level as one metric for success. I
was hoping to see around 60 ministers and while the final number of 53 didn’t
quite get there, it was still an improvement over 2016, when 47 ministers
attended. Only 34 ministers attended in 2013 ICONS. Minister-level attendance
is one of several measures of a country’s commitment to nuclear security and
support for the IAEA, though it’s worth noting that countries like Canada and
Australia, who are strong champions of nuclear security in both words and
deeds, did not send ministers.

The ministerial declaration: Many experts and
government officials were hoping for a ministerial declaration that would be
short and high-level, would highlight key nuclear security priorities, and would
be more forward leaning than in 2016. While the declaration didn’t go as far as
many would have liked in some areas (see
for my own personal wish list), there were some innovative additions.

  • The first four paragraphs of the declaration were
    focused entirely on nuclear security, and it’s not until paragraph five that
    you see a reference to nuclear disarmament, compared to paragraph two in 2016.
    This may seem like a small point, but I was glad to see nuclear security receiving
    top billing in a consensus document at a nuclear security conference.
  • The declaration included the strongest and most
    inclusive recognition so far (whether at ICONS or at any recent IAEA General
    Conferences) of the important role of nuclear security, stating that “nuclear
    security measures may enhance public confidence in the peaceful use of nuclear
    applications,” which in turn “contribute to Member States’ sustainable
    development.” This language is important because it reflects a more inclusive
    and diverse perspective of nuclear security, rather than representing what some
    states perceive as a western/northern priority foisted on unwilling states.
    This new language makes clear that nuclear security is a key ingredient for all
    states’ ability to enjoy the benefits of peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
  • Although the declaration’s reference to the
    IAEA’s role in nuclear security could have been a lot more robust, its
    recognition of the IAEA’s “central role” in facilitating and coordinating
    international nuclear security cooperation, as well as regional activities, was
    an improvement over the 2016 declaration.
  • The declaration contained stronger language than
    previous declarations recognizing cyber threats to nuclear facilities, the need
    for states to strengthen protection against cyber threats, and the IAEA’s role
    in fostering cooperation on cyber. Cyber only received a passing mention in
  • The role of nuclear industry was notably absent
    in the 2016 ICONS ministerial declaration, even though it had been mentioned in
    2013. This year’s declaration made progress by recognizing the important role
    of industry in efforts to strengthen nuclear security culture and insider
    threat mitigation. Nuclear industry implements nuclear security on the ground,
    but inclusion of industry in global efforts to strengthen nuclear security has often
    been an afterthought. Hopefully, the reference to industry in this year’s
    declaration will lead to a shift toward better integration, not just ad hoc
    engagement, of industry.
  • I was glad to see the declaration “encourage” states
    to use and contribute to IAEA peer reviews. These are important tools for
    improving nuclear security and building the confidence of other states and the
    public. An even stronger statement would have made specific references to two
    of the most important types of IAEA services: International Physical Protection
    Advisory Services (IPPAS), which focus on improving a country’s physical
    protection regime, and Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plans (INSSPs),
    through which the IAEA identifies state needs and develops a plan to address
  • Information sharing about nuclear security builds
    confidence in a country’s own security, and helps other countries strengthen
    their security. Hoping for a reference to the importance of confidence building
    likely was too ambitious, but the declaration’s call for states to provide
    experts and share “national expertise, best practices, lessons learned” and to
    “highlight recent successes” is incrementally stronger language on information
    sharing compared to past years.
  • Perhaps one of the most exciting advances in the
    declaration was the commitment to gender equality and geographic diversity,
    both at the IAEA and within member states. And the ministerial declaration
    encouraged member states to establish “an inclusive workforce.” Gender
    diversity was also a huge theme at ICONS in general, with several side events
    and panels focusing on this important topic.

There also were a few notable omissions:

  • The provision on the amended CPPNM focused on
    achieving universalization and implementation of the convention. While those
    are important goals, I was hoping to see a call for countries to submit
    information to the IAEA on their laws and regulations as required by Article 14
    of the convention, as well as support for regular review conferences after the
    upcoming 2021 conference. (For more on this topic, see
  • It is long overdue for consensus statements like
    the ministerial declaration to address increasing stocks of separated
    plutonium. As before, the declaration unfortunately only addressed the need to
    minimize stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and remained silent on
    separated plutonium.
  • A reference to nuclear security INFCIRCs
    (IAEA information circulars) that originated as joint commitments at the
    Nuclear Security Summits and are now open to signature by all IAEA member
    states was definitely a long shot. I understand the sensitivity of the link
    between INFCIRCs and the Nuclear Security Summits in the IAEA context, given
    some states’ objection to the Summits’ “exclusivity” and negative view of
    instruments derived from the summit process. That said, these INFCIRCs are
    important new vehicles for countries to voluntarily demonstrate commitments in
    specific areas and are available for all countries to subscribe to, whether or
    not they participated in the Summits.
  • Some states and experts were pushing for the
    declaration to recognize the need to develop and promote new technology to
    replace the most dangerous types of radioactive sources that are used for
    medicine and research. Some states believe the IAEA is not the appropriate
    venue for promoting alternative technologies. Despite this, the declaration was
    able to include a subtle reference to alternative technology by calling on the
    IAEA to facilitate the exchange of information on “nuclear and radioactive
    security technology options.”
  • Despite mentioning the importance of education
    and training generally, the declaration failed to call out for special mention
    the important capacity-building role of Centers of Excellence and Nuclear
    Security Training and Support Centers, as it had in 2016.

Progress and Commitments: One hundred and four states
made available their national statements on the IAEA’s conference website. Thirty-two
of the statements were posted in Arabic, French, Russian, or Spanish. When
reviewing these statements, I looked for two things—statements of progress and
new commitments.

Overall, the quality of these national statements was higher
than past years and around half of the statements contained references to
specific activities a state had taken since the 2016 ICONS to strengthen its own
security or support global nuclear security efforts. These statements went far
beyond the generic “we are doing really great things and our nuclear security
is the best.” In addition to progress, many countries highlighted activities
they were planning to undertake in the near future, from hosting nuclear
security workshops, to inviting an IPPAS or INSSP mission, to updating nuclear security
laws and regulations.

Some highlights from the national statements:

  • Canada gets a gold star. Its national statement and annexed progress report described a long list of activities Canada has been taking to strengthen nuclear security nationally and internationally. It announced the completion of repatriation of all U.S.-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU) from its research reactors and it also announced new funding commitments of $24 million for various IAEA activities around the world, including to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund.
  • Pakistan also gets a gold star for releasing a comprehensive national nuclear security report in conjunction with ICONS.
  • The United States and Belgium delivered a new joint commitment on minimizing the use of HEU, which included a target date of the end of 2022 for converting Belgium’s medical isotope production facility to low-enriched uranium (LEU) targets. This was paired with a weaker commitment to convert Belgium’s research reactor as soon as technically and economically feasible.
  • Other national statements referenced ongoing or planned HEU-minimization activities in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
  • Despite the absence of any reference to them in
    the ministerial declaration, nuclear security INFCIRCs, which are another
    vehicle for making commitments, were highlighted at a side event
    hosted by Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Norway, and the United States on
    how to turn INFCIRCs into action, and in at least nine national statements:
    Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, and
    Ukraine. France, Switzerland, and Ukraine also announced that they had recently
    subscribed to INFCIRCs.

Support for the IAEA: At ICONS I was looking for
signs of strong and unequivocal support for and recognition of the IAEA’s role
in nuclear security. There are a range of perspectives about the IAEA’s role in
nuclear security, with some countries arguing the IAEA should focus on
technical cooperation and assistance to support peaceful uses of nuclear
technology and less on nuclear security. On the one hand, the ministerial
declaration included strong language in support of the IAEA’s “central role” in
nuclear security that it had not included in 2016 and encouraged member states
to use IAEA services and provide financial, technical, and human resources to
support the IAEA’s work. Moreover, the conference ended with more than $20
million in commitments to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund for its nuclear
security activities. On the other hand, numerous national statements continued
to stress that nuclear security should not be at the expense of technical
cooperation. Of course, nobody is arguing that it should, but that perception unfortunately
still has a foothold at the IAEA.

A roadmap for the amended CPPNM review: Although the
ministerial declaration did not address the issue of holding regular review
conferences or encourage states to fulfill obligations to submit information on
laws and regulations to the IAEA under Article 14, there was a huge spotlight on
the amended CPPNM throughout ICONS. Universalization was very clearly a common
priority across a diverse set of countries and the upcoming review conference
in 2021 loomed large.

An IAEA side event on strengthening international
institutions focused heavily on the amended CPPNM, with the Swiss co-chair of
the review conference identifying goals for the review. An FMWG-hosted side
event (in which NTI participated) focused on the amended CPPNM review
conference and how different trends that impact nuclear security, including
emerging technology, should be taken into account in the review. Finally, two
technical sessions also highlighted the amendment, one on international legal
instruments and the other dedicated to discussing the amended CPPNM’s implementation
and the review conference, in which I participated.

In June of this year, the Preparatory Committee for the
amended CPPNM will meet, so we will see if ICONS created any momentum in
support of robust, substantive, and regular review conferences.

Looking Ahead

It’s hard to say yet whether ICONS created new, positive
momentum for nuclear security at the IAEA and writ large. ICONS has been held
on a three-year (approximately) cycle since 2013, but the ministerial
declaration announced that ICONS will be held every four years going forward. That
seems like a long way away, but in those four years, we will be able to observe
how the new Director General’s agenda develops. We will know whether there was a
successful shift to more predictable and sustainable funding for the IAEA’s
nuclear security work. We will know the fate of the amended CPPNM review
conference – whether it was a review conference with meaning and substance and
whether countries agree to hold another one. And we will know if perceptions
about nuclear security shift toward greater appreciation of the link between
nuclear security and peaceful use.

Luckily, for those who just can’t wait another four years
for some nuclear security excitement, NTI is here to help. In June, we’ll be
launching the fifth edition of the
NTI Nuclear Security Index. There will
be some new features in this year’s edition, with the inclusion of security
culture, nuclear security INFCIRCS, support for the IAEA, and more. In exciting
news, this year’s edition also feature an assessment of radioactive source
security around the world.

Stay tuned! 

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