IAEA Security Official Seeks More Money to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

IAEA Security Official Seeks More Money to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

By Chris Schneidmiller

Aug. 20, 2012

WASHINGTON – The International Atomic Energy Agency’s top nuclear security official said his operation must have more money and people if it is to meet nations’ growing demand for help in ensuring their atomic facilities are protected against terrorism.

As it stands, governments in some cases could wait for years to receive expert guidance in preparing a comprehensive protection program, according to Khammar Mrabit, head of the U.N. branch’s Nuclear Security Office.

“The risk is that there will be gaps in nuclear security in some countries, in some areas, that is not acceptable,” he told Global Security Newswire. “This is the risk and we would like to speed up the process of establishing and strengthening nuclear security in these countries. … The sooner the better.”

While Mrabit has an obvious reason to advocate for his office, he is not alone in promoting an enhanced IAEA nuclear security operation. The most recent multinational Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea ended in March with a call for countries to deliver increased voluntary funding for the office. Laura Holgate, the U.S. National Security Council’s lead threat reduction official, in June also discussed the potential for boosting the office’s “clout” via an upgrade to divisional status.

It should not be assumed, though, that providing more money and staff would automatically translate into benefits on the ground, according to one issue expert.

“Focusing on those two issues as the No. 1 priorities is absolutely characteristic of large bureaucracies. They want more and a bigger department,” said Roger Howsley, a former safeguards adviser to the agency and executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security.

World leaders for years have expressed worry that bad actors might gain access to the ingredients for a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb” that would spread radioactive material with conventional explosives. The global response to the threat has been highlighted by the two Nuclear Security Summits and President Obama’s 2009 announcement of a global push to lock down all unsecured material within four years.

Nations reported 2,164 cases of smuggling or other incidents involving nuclear and radioactive substances between January 1993 and last December, according to the IAEA Illicit Trafficking Database. There were 16 cases of “unauthorized possession” of nuclear weapon-usable highly enriched uranium or plutonium, though usually only grams of the materials.

Physical protection at hundreds of civilian nuclear plants and thousands of sites holding other radioactive materials worldwide sometimes go “too far,” Howsley said. In other locations “you might be quite alarmed at how lax they are.” The level of defense is based on a nation’s resources, attitude on the threat and other matters, he said.

The Nuclear Security Office’s job is to lead the IAEA component of the international push for security of atomic materials being used, stored or moved.

A large part of that mission has involved providing training to more than 12,000 people, technology, expert guidance and other assistance to more than 120 nations with the intention of preventing nuclear security breaches and establishing detection and response capabilities when incidents do occur.

The majority of the more than 70 broad security plans prepared for nations are being implemented, and the office has assisted with securing in excess of 4,700 radioactive sources and sending more than 1,050 kilograms of highly enriched uranium back to the nation of origin.

A June meeting led additional nations to request that the Vienna, Austria-based organization help to prepare additional nuclear security plans, he added.

“Now the issue is to have resources to meet those requests and those needs,” Mrabit, an IAEA veteran who took over the security office in April 2011, said in a July interview. “This is where exactly the resources available to us are not sufficient to meet the current and future needs of nuclear security.”

The office in its current spending year received more than $5.5 million from the core IAEA budget and another $24.6 million in voluntary “extrabudgetary” support from agency member nations. Mrabit acknowledged that the funding is a major boost from the service’s inception in 2002, when its total budget was slightly less than $10 million.

He argued, though, that growing need for his office’s services requires greater resources -- $6 million to $12 million per year, and ideally adding five to 10 personnel to its staff of about 60.

As an example of the need, he said the office has only one specialist to manage a large number of requests from nations in helping to establish some level of capacity in nuclear forensics – the ability to determine the point of origin of atomic material that might be seized from smugglers or used in an act of terrorism.

Heads of state from more than 50 nations at the March summit in Seoul called in a final declaration for governments “in a position to do so and the nuclear industry to increase voluntary contributions to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund, as well as in-kind contributions.” There was no mention of making nuclear security a greater part of the core agency budget.

The present financing plan means the office cannot be absolutely sure of its funding levels from year to year, and how the money is used is to some degree controlled by the nations providing the voluntary support, Mrabit said.

Obtaining additional resources would require approval from the 35-nation IAEA governing board amid a greater focus on the agency’s work in other fields, from monitoring safety at nations’ atomic plants to ensuring governments are not illicitly diverting nuclear assets to secret weapons programs.

A major obstacle to the type of shift Mrabit is promoting is that many nations are not interested in seeing additional emphasis and funding on nuclear security, said Trevor Findlay, a one-time Australian foreign affairs staffer who addressed the issue in a June report on reforming the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Developing nations want more funding put into the agency’s work to promote use of nuclear technology for energy generation, food production and other needs, Findlay said. It would take a “grand bargain” in which financing for technical cooperation activities also became a core budget item to see Mrabit’s ambition become reality, according to the expert.

The likelihood of such a compromise is “not very high, because it’s dependent on a bargain and it’s dependent on people getting out of their silos,” he added.

Moving the office out of the IAEA Nuclear Safety and Security Division would give it a higher “bureaucratic profile” to argue for additional resources and grab the attention of the agency’s director general, Findlay said.

Those resources are going to be necessary if the organization wants to take charge of the nuclear security issue once the biannual summits are likely halted after the anticipated 2014 gathering in the Netherlands, according to the expert.

The IAEA director general could propose an office upgrade when he submits his 2014-17 nuclear security plan to member nations, but as with the funding question the decision is ultimately up to the Board of Governors, Mrabit said.

Howsley noted that nuclear security is by no means left to the agency -- hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in country-to-country, efforts, and a truly successful comprehensive program would require greater corporate buy-in, among other steps. The nuclear organization, though, alone has the authority to work with all of its IAEA states – now up to 154 – and is central to negotiations on global nuclear security agreements.

“For that reason I think the IAEA is tremendously important,” Howsley said.