Putting Air Under the Wings of Nuclear Security

A perpetual problem for the community that cares about nuclear security and the prevention of terrorism is the struggle to make the issue pertinent for the public by connecting its importance with other significant global challenges. A refreshing new analysis has broken out of that box. It makes a strong case that the international nuclear security regime can, and needs to, learn lessons from the aviation sector, an industry that people in every country encounter every day.

At first glance, it may seem that aviation challenges are irrelevant to the protection of nuclear infrastructure and materials. Access to nuclear plants and materials is highly controlled and the security system is based on keeping the public out. Whereas commercial aviation welcomes billions of people per year onto its aircraft.

However, the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) has produced a densely researched 9-volume series of documents which highlights that many aviation security best practices are transferable to the nuclear sector. It offers a 10-point plan that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can adopt to create the necessary, real improvements to a global nuclear security system that is plagued by a lack of uniform requirements, practices, and evaluation.

One point of commonality between both sectors is their United Nations-affiliated organizations, the IAEA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These institutions set the international frameworks for security in their respective sectors. Other similarities include the fact that the state is accountable for security in both sectors through national regulators, both are considered part of the critical infrastructure in most countries, and that they face similar threats – physical attacks, cyber dangers, and insider sabotage.

But there also are critical differences between the IAEA and ICAO. The aviation organization has a stronger role in mandating and assessing the effectiveness of global aviation security than does the IAEA. Its role was considerably strengthened by its member states in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Nuclear security also was strengthened after 9/11 but no significant new nuclear security authority was provided to the IAEA by its member states. This is primarily the result of national sensitivities related to the state responsibility for nuclear security and a weak international consensus that nuclear terrorism is a threat to the entire global community, not just nuclear-operating states.

Unlike ICAO, IAEA only offers guidance on nuclear security best practices. There is no international convention mandating standards of nuclear security, though there are binding agreements covering limited elements of the issue. Under the IAEA guidance, each nation can implement their recommendations, or not, and Agency evaluations of its effectiveness are voluntary.

By contrast, there is a Convention on International Civil Aviation that requires any deviation from its international standards be immediately reported to the authority which will then alert all other nations. ICAO also has the authority to conduct mandatory aviation security audits. Since 2002, ICAO has conducted over 430 security audits while the IAEA has completed 103. ICAO also certifies 35 regional training centers that employ demonstrably competent instructors and auditors. The IAEA networks a very important set of nuclear security support centers but does not certify their courses or instructors.

The conclusions of the WINS analysis are serious and sobering. It assesses that the IAEA is 20 years behind ICAO in adapting to the new realities of the international threat environment. It makes clear that a continued lag in strengthening the teeth of the nuclear security regime will impede the ability of nuclear power to contribute to addressing other global challenges including deep reductions in global carbon emissions.

The new Director General of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, has the potential to be a transformative figure if he chooses to join nuclear security to other global challenges, including climate change. He has stated his intention to “transform our nuclear security guidance into mainstreamed norms.” And, he has recognized that nuclear power must have a place at the table where the world’s energy future is decided. That’s a good foundation for expanding the connection between these vital, and mutually dependent, issues.

Ken Luongo, Partnership for Global Security