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Nuclear Proliferation and the Potential Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Nuclear Proliferation and the Potential Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Speech by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei at the Asian-Pacific Conference on Nuclear Safeguards and Security, 8 November 2004, Sydney, Australia. . Source: IAEA Website.

For many centuries, security strategies have been based on boundaries: the strategic placement of cities and borders to take advantage of natural barriers; defences that relied on walls, trenches and armadas; and the use of ethnic and religious groupings or other categories to distinguish friend from foe. In the 20th Century, the advent of airplanes, submarines, ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction began to undermine this approach to security — by making borders increasingly porous, and by enabling the remote delivery of destruction on a scale previously not envisioned.

But the forcing factor — the change that has altered the international security landscape so drastically that it has compelled a fundamental reevaluation of security strategies — is, in fact, globalization. The global community has become interdependent, with the constant movement of people, ideas and goods. Many aspects of modern life — global warming, Internet communication, the global marketplace, and yes, the rise in international terrorism — point to the fact that the human race has walked through a door that cannot be re-entered. Our approaches to national and international security must be in keeping with this reality.

Today, our focus is on nuclear proliferation and the potential threat of nuclear terrorism in Asia and the Pacific — and I am pleased at the opportunity to share with you my perspectives on the challenges we face, and how the IAEA is working to strengthen nuclear security and the nuclear non-proliferation regime. But I would emphasize at the outset that, while much of our work must begin locally and regionally, we must not forget to think globally, because ultimately the existence of a nuclear threat anywhere is a threat everywhere, and as a global community, we will win or lose this battle together.

  • Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Verification

Turning first to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation: the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) remains the global anchor for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. Despite flaws in the system, implementation of the NPT continues to provide important security benefits — by providing assurance that, in the great majority of non-nuclear-weapon States, nuclear energy is not being misused for weapon purposes. Although the NPT is sometimes perceived as a project of the industrialized world, its benefits extend across any geopolitical divide.

Still, it is clear that the events of the past few years have placed the NPT and the regime supporting it under unprecedented stress, exposing some of its limitations and pointing to areas that need to be adjusted. A number of conspicuous lessons and insights can be gained from the recent experience of the IAEA in verifying undeclared nuclear programmes in Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that verification and diplomacy, used in conjunction, can be effective. The Iraq experience demonstrated that the nuclear inspection process — while requiring time and patience — can be effective even when the country under inspection is providing less than active cooperation. When international inspectors are provided adequate authority, aided by all available information, backed by a credible compliance mechanism, and supported by international consensus, the verification system works. The report recently issued by the Iraq Survey Group confirmed the conclusions the IAEA was providing to the United Nations Security Council before the war, when we said we had found no evidence to suggest that Iraq had reconstituted any element of its former nuclear weapon programme — a conclusion that clearly came as a relief to all concerned.

Looking more broadly at recent IAEA experience in other countries, it is clear that, for nuclear verification to be successful, IAEA inspectors must have adequate authority. The "any time, any place" authority granted by the Security Council in the case of Iraq was extraordinary, and it is not likely that countries would voluntarily grant the IAEA such blanket rights of inspection.

Nonetheless, within the NPT framework, adequate authority can be achieved in those countries that accept the so-called "additional protocol" as a supplement to their NPT safeguards agreement. The additional protocol provides the Agency with significant additional authority with regard to both information and physical access. As illustrated by the IAEA’s experience in Iraq before the first Gulf War, without the authority provided by the protocol, our ability to verify nuclear activities is mostly limited to the nuclear material already declared — with little authority to verify the absence of undeclared, or clandestine, nuclear material or activities. By contrast, our recent efforts in Iran and elsewhere have made clear how much can be uncovered when the protocol is applied.

Perhaps the most disturbing lesson to emerge from our work in Iran and Libya is the existence of an extensive illicit market for the supply of nuclear items, which clearly thrived on demand. The relative ease with which a multinational illicit network could be set up and operated demonstrates clearly the inadequacy of the present export control system. The fact that so many companies and individuals could be involved (more than two dozen, by last count) — and that, in most cases, this could occur apparently without the knowledge of their own governments — points to the shortcomings of national systems for oversight of sensitive equipment and technology. It also points to the limitations of existing international cooperation on export controls, which relies on informal arrangements, does not include many countries with growing industrial capacity, and does not include sufficient sharing of export information with the IAEA.

Clearly, it is time to change our assumptions regarding the inaccessibility of nuclear technology. In a modern society characterized by electronic information exchange, interlinked financial systems, and global trade, the control of access to nuclear weapons technology has grown increasingly difficult. The technical barriers to mastering the essential steps of uranium enrichment — and to designing weapons — have eroded over time. Much of the hardware in question is ‘dual use’, and the sheer diversity of technology has made it much more difficult to control or even track procurement and sales.

The only reasonable conclusion is that the control of technology is not, in itself, a sufficient barrier against further proliferation. For an increasing number of countries with a highly developed industrial infrastructure — and in some cases access to high enriched uranium or plutonium — the international community must rely primarily on a continuing sense of security as the basis for the adherence of these countries to their non-proliferation commitments. And security perceptions can rapidly change.

This leads to the important conclusion that ways and means should be found to better control the sensitive parts of the fuel cycle — namely, the production of enriched uranium and the reprocessing of plutonium.

The concept of multilateral control or oversight over proliferation sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle has been the subject of many studies and initiatives over the years. Recent non-proliferation and security challenges make it important and appropriate that we revisit this subject. Several months ago, I appointed a group of senior experts to look into various options for multilateral control. I also asked the group to look into how to guarantee the supply of reactor technology and fuel, and the possibility of setting up an international scheme for the management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. The group plans to submit a report next March, before the NPT Review Conference, on the results of its study.

The evolution of the North Korean situation over the past 18 months also carries an important lesson — that is, that the international community cannot afford not to act in a timely manner in cases of non-compliance, and before available options are narrowed. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the Democratic People´s Republic of Korea (DPRK) took seven years to fulfill its obligations under the NPT to conclude a safeguards agreement with the Agency. In 1992, shortly after this agreement was concluded and the IAEA began inspections, we sounded the alarm that the DPRK had not reported its total production of plutonium. From that time forward, the DPRK has been in continuous non-compliance with its NPT obligations, and has not allowed the IAEA to fully verify its nuclear programme. At the end of 2002, the DPRK capped that non-compliance by ordering IAEA inspectors out of the country, dismantling the monitoring cameras, breaking IAEA seals and, a few weeks later, declaring its withdrawal from the NPT.

Naturally, all of these actions were promptly reported by the Agency to the Security Council — but with little to no response. This lack of timely action may have complicated finding a solution, and may have conveyed the message that breaking the non-proliferation norms with impunity is a doable proposition — or, worse, that acquiring a nuclear deterrent will bring with it a special treatment.

The final lesson, an insight that has been demonstrated repeatedly, is that insecurity breeds proliferation. It is instructive that nearly all nuclear proliferation concerns arise in regions of longstanding tension. In other words, nuclear proliferation is a symptom, and the patient cannot ultimately be cured as long as we leave unaddressed the underlying causes of insecurity and instability — such as chronic disputes, the persistent lack of good governance and basic freedoms, the growing divide between rich and poor, and newly perceived schisms based on ethnic or religious differences.

It is in this context that I have begun to stress not only the value but also the limitations of the IAEA´s role. While the Agency can use verification effectively to bring to closure questions of compliance with legal and technical requirements, the long term value of these efforts can only be realized to the extent that they are reinforced by all other components of the non-proliferation regime, and followed by the necessary political dialogue among concerned States to address underlying issues of insecurity, and to build confidence and trust. I should note that verification, supported by diplomacy, has been an important part of the efforts so far in Iran and Libya, and in that sense I can only hope that the continuation of the six-party talks on the DPRK nuclear programme will yield results that will include, inter alia, full IAEA verification.

  • Nuclear Security and the Protection Against Nuclear Terrorism

With nuclear proliferation concerns as a backdrop, the security of nuclear and other radioactive material has taken on dramatically heightened significance in recent years. The IAEA has been active in the field of nuclear security for many years, but as you are all aware, the events of September 2001 propelled the rapid and dramatic re-evaluation of the risks of terrorism in all its forms — whether related to the security of urban centers, sports arenas, industrial complexes, harbors and waterways, oil refineries, air and rail travel, or nuclear and radiological activities. For those of us in the nuclear sphere, it became rapidly apparent that "the lesson of Chernobyl", in the safety sphere, should be applied to security as well: that is, that nuclear security should be urgently strengthened, without waiting for a "watershed" nuclear security event to provide the impetus for needed security upgrades.

International cooperation has become the hallmark of these security efforts. While nuclear security is and should remain a national responsibility, some countries still lack the programmes and the resources to respond properly to the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism. International efforts are focused both on assisting these countries in strengthening their programmes, and on building regional and global networks for combating transnational threats.

  • Understanding the Threats

The IAEA has categorized four potential nuclear security threats (or, more accurately, nuclear security risks): the acquisition of nuclear weapons by theft; the creation of nuclear explosive devices using stolen nuclear materials; the use of radioactive sources in radiological dispersal devices (RDDs); and the radiological hazards caused by an attack on, or sabotage of, a facility or a transport vehicle.

The threat of nuclear terrorism is real and current. Some experts share the view of the Director General of the United Kingdom Security Service, who said in August 2003: "It will only be a matter of time before a crude version of a [chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear] attack is launched at a major Western city." To date, the IAEA’s own database on illicit trafficking has recorded, since 1993, approximately 630 confirmed incidents of trafficking in nuclear or other radioactive material. Sixty incidents were reported in 2003, and it is clear that the total for this year will be even higher. While the majority of trafficking incidents do not involve nuclear material, and while most of the radioactive sources involved are of limited radiological concern, the number of incidents shows that the measures to control and secure nuclear and other radioactive materials need to be improved. They also show that measures to detect and respond to illicit trafficking are essential.

A strategy to counter the potential threats needs to be comprehensive. It must encompass not only power and research reactors and their related fuel cycle facilities; not only waste storage sites and vehicles used in domestic and international transport; but also relevant research and academic institutions; and agricultural, industrial and medical institutions and applications where nuclear or radioactive materials are involved. This is a tall order.

  • Asia and the Pacific Region

In Asia and the Pacific region, interest has been expanding in a broad range of nuclear technologies. The reliance on nuclear power as a source of electricity is already substantial, with well established programmes in China (including Taiwan, China), Japan, the Republic of Korea, India and Pakistan — and when compared to any region in the world, Asia holds the strongest current growth market for nuclear power.

In addition, more than 50 research reactors and accelerators are operating in 15 Asian countries. Nuclear applications are also playing a strong role in development. Nuclear and isotopic techniques are being used, inter alia: to diagnose and treat cancer patients; to study and improve child nutrition; to produce higher yielding, disease resistant crops; to manage drinking water supplies; to eradicate disease-bearing pests; to increase industrial productivity; and to help address many other development issues.

Effective and credible national and regional approaches to security are therefore essential — not only for nuclear power plants, but also for research reactors, accelerators, and the ubiquitous array of radioactive sources that support these nuclear applications. To optimize the effectiveness of these efforts, it will be important for efforts to be prioritized by focusing on those facilities where the risk is greatest — and to maintain a balance between security needs and the many peaceful applications of nuclear technology. For example, the recent increase in the denial of shipments of radioactive material, while driven by perceived security issues, can be a matter of significant humanitarian concern — particularly when such shipments involve radionuclides intended for use in medical applications. While we should be strongly focused on ensuring the security of nuclear and other radioactive materials globally, we should equally seek solutions that will ensure the continued delivery of the benefits that these materials and related applications provide.

For nuclear installations such as nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities, it is also important to understand how safety and security aspects come together in the identification and protection of vulnerabilities. The IAEA has increasingly been asked to provide guidance on how to reconcile the need for transparency, in matters of nuclear and radiation safety, with the need for confidentiality, from a security perspective. Effective risk management requires striking a balance that protects the security of sensitive information while ensuring that safety concerns are addressed in a transparent manner, and that lessons learned, relating to both safety and security, are shared for the benefit of the entire nuclear community.

  • IAEA Nuclear Security Plan of Activities

The IAEA´s nuclear security plan is founded on measures to guard against thefts of material and to protect related facilities against malicious acts. Our work has three main points of focus: prevention, detection and response.

Our first objective is to assist States in preventing any illicit or non-peaceful use of nuclear or other radioactive materials — including acts of terrorism. This requires: effective physical protection of these materials in use, storage and transport; protection of related nuclear facilities; strong State programmes for accounting and control of nuclear material; and continued efforts to convert research reactors to use low enriched uranium — as the necessary funding and technological solutions become available.

The IAEA has been providing a range of international advisory service missions — as well as training workshops — on nuclear security, physical protection, "design basis threat" assessments, and nuclear material accounting, to assist States in these prevention measures. In Asia and the Pacific region, this has included advisory missions in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as many national and regional training courses on nuclear security topics. The Agency’s technical guidance documents provide the foundations for many of these preventive measures.

A preventive focus has also been given to finding and securing vulnerable nuclear and other radioactive material. Working with Russia and the United States, 15 missions were conducted just last year in 11 countries of the former Soviet Union, to identify and secure high activity disused sources. Over 20 000 curies of sealed sources from Bolivia, Cote d´Ivoire, Haiti, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Malaysia, Sudan and Thailand have been conditioned for long term storage or shipped back to the original suppliers. We expect the volume of these and other high priority assistance efforts to increase.

The second objective relates to detection — ensuring that we have systems in place that can help countries to identify, at an early stage, illicit activity related to nuclear materials or radioactive sources. To this end, we have been assisting countries from many regions in training customs officials, installing better equipment at border crossings, and ensuring that information on trafficking incidents is shared effectively. The Agency database on illicit trafficking, now with a total of 80 participating countries, has proven helpful in identifying patterns of trafficking activity.

Third, we have been working with national governments and international organizations to ensure that, in the event that illicit activity occurs — including acts of terrorism involving nuclear material or radioactive sources — we can respond rapidly and cooperatively. To date, most such responses have involved helping governments with the recovery of radioactive sources.

The bulk of this activity has occurred in the past three years, progressing at an exceptionally fast pace on multiple fronts. Since September 2001, working in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa, we have conducted more than 50 security advisory and evaluation missions, and convened more than 60 training courses, workshops and seminars. And in an effort relevant to all three areas of focus — prevention, detection and response — the IAEA has strengthened its own cooperation with relevant international and regional organizations, such as Interpol, Europol, OSCE, the Universal Postal Union, the World Customs Organization and specialized United Nations Agencies.

IAEA Member States have been very supportive in providing financial and in-kind resources to fund the Agency’s security related activities. Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea have contributed significant sums to the Agency’s Nuclear Security Fund, and China´s recent pledge of extrabudgetary funding includes provisions for supporting nuclear security. Throughout Asia and the Pacific, IAEA Member States have hosted workshops and regional training courses, participated in source recovery missions, provided technical insights on how engineered safety features at nuclear facilities can enhance security against sabotage, and contributed to the development of Agency guidelines and recommendations.

  • Focus of Future Efforts

Looking to the future, it is clear that the imperatives that first led to the development of the IAEA´s nuclear security plan have not diminished. We are now beginning a major review of our nuclear security activities.

The main elements of a revised plan of activities are already emerging. One aspect of the new plan is to complete the international infrastructure of legal instruments, as well as relevant recommendations and guidelines.

One such legal instrument is the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). For a number of years, work has been progressing on a draft amendment to the CPPNM that would expand its scope and strengthen existing provisions. In July, at the request of the Government of Austria and 24 co-sponsoring States, I circulated proposed amendments to the CPPNM to all States Parties. The aim of these amendments, as proposed, is to extend the scope of the Convention to cover nuclear material used for peaceful purposes not only in international transport and storage, but also in domestic transport, storage and use, as well as the protection of nuclear material and facilities used for peaceful purposes from sabotage. While consultations are ongoing to resolve a few outstanding issues, it is my hope that we can convene a diplomatic conference early next year to amend the Convention and expand its scope.

A second aspect of the new plan will be to accelerate a shift in emphasis from evaluation to action. While we will continue to deliver advisory and needs assessment services, the work of the past three years have given us a much better understanding of Member State needs, and we will be working with States to give more emphasis to security upgrades and technical assistance.

A third point of focus will be to enhance the sustainability and self-reliance of nuclear security programmes in Member States. This will include helping States establish the needed regulatory frameworks, assisting in the implementation of international guidelines, and addressing continued training needs. For example, major security enhancements are expected as we assist States in implementing the revised Code of Conduct on source safety and security. More than 60 States have already begun working towards implementation of the Code. The Agency is also developing Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plans with individual Member States, as frameworks for helping to address their nuclear security needs over the longer term.

  • The Importance of Regional Efforts

It is clear that the benefits of IAEA assistance — and the reach of our limited resources — can be maximized by coordinating our activities with other international and regional organizations and through the use of regional partnerships. The Australian Government has established a regional project on the Security of Radioactive Sources, and the IAEA hopes to contribute to the success of that project, using funds designated by the US Department of Energy for assistance in establishing Regional Radiological Security Partnerships. Australia, the IAEA, and the USA, together with other States in the region — notably, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam — are already in the process of developing a work plan.

  • Conclusion

At the outset of this statement, I emphasized that security strategies could no longer be effective if based solely on the concept of boundaries. And throughout this presentation, you have heard me discussing cooperation, assistance, regional and international networks, and the importance of learning from each other. In effect, what we are discussing is a "security culture" — a mindset that, while providing the impetus for local and regional action, thinks globally and is fully capable of extending across borders.

Sixty years ago, on a day in August, the dawn of the Nuclear Age in Asia left nearly a quarter of a million people dead, with two devices considered crude by modern standards. For six decades, we have managed to avoid a repeat of that event, but remain haunted by the prospect. It is my firm belief that we cannot move out from under the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki until we are ready to make that move collectively, and build a system of security that transcends borders, that focuses on the equal value of every human life, and in which nuclear weapons have no place. May it not ultimately be said of our civilization that we created the inventions that led to our own demise.

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).