There are no binding international standards for the security of nuclear materials
The deal reached in Geneva last November is a major and much needed breakthrough in efforts to establish tighter controls over the nuclear program in Iran, ensure its peaceful nature, and hopefully reverse it. The interim agreement slows down Iran’s acquisition of special fissile materials—highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which are the main ingredients for a nuclear device. It puts limitations on Iran’s capacity to enrich, caps the enrichment of uranium at 5%, and eliminates half of the 20% U235 stocks. It also postpones Iran’s acquisition of plutonium by putting on hold the launch of the Arak research reactor. Most importantly, these limitations will be subject to intrusive inspections and verification measures. However, the deal is only an interim solution. It puts a break on the nuclear developments in Iran and gives the two sides time to develop trust and to hold further negotiations on a comprehensive, lasting agreement. Iran’s break-out capabilities and possible dismantlement of some facilities are likely to be the subject of future negotiations. In this regard, the effective implementation of the “Joint Plan of Action” in the next six months by both sides is critical for any follow-on deals.The theft of radioactive materials that took place early December 2013 in Mexico poses questions on the protection of radioactive material worldwide. What do you think should be done at a regional and international level to strengthen the regime in place?
The theft of a truck with a cobalt-60 source in Mexico and its successful recovery provide many valuable lessons and point to vulnerabilities. What if the thieves were after the radioactive material and wanted to use it for terrorist purposes? Why wasn’t the truck equipped with a GPS or other tracking device and why was it left unattended by the driver? The Mexican authorities, no doubt, will be deriving their own lessons. They should be praised, however, for issuing an international alert and making this information public. They did so despite the absence of a legal instrument that requires such reporting. This incident highlights another shortcoming. There are no binding international standards for the security of nuclear materials and radioactive sources. The IAEA’s recommendations and codes of conduct are extremely valuable but still fall short when it comes to the enforcement, transparency, and universality. Hopefully, the forthcoming Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague could tackle some of these issues. We need to overcome the insistence of states to treat nuclear security as a domestic issue and use national sovereignty and secrecy as a pretext for not committing to binding international obligations.In March 2014, the first ever Nuclear Knowledge Summit (NKS), parallel to the Nuclear Security Summit, will be held in Amsterdam. What role does civil society play regarding nuclear security?
Similar symposia have already been held in parallel with the Nuclear Security Summits in Washington, DC, in 2010 and in Seoul in 2012. The NKS in Amsterdam is a continuing recognition of the role that civil society plays in setting the agenda, providing expertise, and contributing to the capacity building in the nuclear security field. Examples range from the development of draft highly enriched uranium transparency guidelines, self-assessment tools on nuclear security culture, model legislation kits, online training modules, and academic programs. The NKS is also an opportunity to generate new ideas and tackle some issues that do not find their way to the official Summit agenda, or that governments are too timid to discuss, such as non-civilian stocks of fissile materials. In addition, the NKS allows representatives from different regions to share ideas and approaches to advancing nuclear security in their respective regions and globally, chart priorities for future work, and discuss ways to promote them.
Interview conducted by Boris le Polain
Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS), Paris