When 47 countries gather in Washington on Monday at a summit to prevent nuclear proliferation and counter the risk of atomic weapons falling into terrorist hands, one United Nations agency with a proven track record in the field will be front and centre in offering help.
From protecting nuclear sites against theft and sabotage to enabling secure repatriation of used but still dangerous atomic fuels to helping countries guard against radioactive attacks on major events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games or June’s soccer World Cup in South Africa, the Vienna-based UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has played a major role.
“The risk that any terrorist or criminal would be able to construct a nuclear explosive device or a radiological dispersal device, a so-called dirty bomb, and then use it for their purposes… the threat is real,” IAEA Office of Nuclear Security Director Anita Nilsson said this week of the Washington meeting, which United States President Barack Obama has convened and which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend.
“We have been talking about nuclear security for a long time and it has been part of the interest of the international community for a long time, but it has come into focus lately because of many brutal terrorist events that happened around the globe and the recognition that they see no limits.”
The IAEA, which began life 53 years ago as a UN body with the name Atoms for Peace, does not have responsibility for nuclear security in Member States but can help all countries that so wish “to establish effective, sustainable nuclear security systems that would significantly reduce or even eliminate this threat,” Ms. Nilsson added.
“We recognize that this is a global threat and, therefore, if there are countries and regions who do not recognize the possibility that something like this could happen, that we think is the greatest threat. There is no room for complacency when we are speaking about nuclear security,” she stressed.
The Beijing Olympics involved one and a half years of work in which IAEA helped train people to detect radioactive material that might be brought into the venues, and to know what to do if that happened. “And this has now become a major part of how to prepare for big gatherings and events,” Ms. Nilsson said, citing the upcoming World Cup as another example.
“We supply them with radiation detection equipment and how to use it, and also what to do if there is detection or even a dispersal of radioactive isotopes – what are the first measures to take and how to clean it up,” she added.
Greece, Germany and Brazil likewise called on agency support for the 2004 Olympics, the 2006 World Cup and the 2007 Pan American Games respectively.
The IAEA has invaluable knowledge in the field. “The exuberance, the show and the colours that characterize these events often belie sinister risks such as terrorism, which unfortunately come with the high profile these events receive,” it said in a news release. “Recently, the international community has been confronting a new security threat: the risk of the malicious use of nuclear or other radioactive material, an area in which the IAEA has unique expertise.”
But the agency is not only concerned with nuclear materials if they should get into the wrong hands. Much of its work focuses on trying to ensure that this does not happen in the first place.
IAEA experts help States protect nuclear facilities and transport against sabotage or theft, offering specialized training, helping to enhance cooperation between various national law enforcement officials and backing the installation of radiological monitoring equipment and training at border crossings.
In the past six years the agency has helped Member States repatriate 45 consignments of radioactive materials from developing countries where they were used in medicine, industry or research.
Should a nuclear security incident occur or a nuclear or radiation emergency arise, the IAEA Incident and Emergency Centre coordinates 24/7 specialized support and assistance for Member States.
Some 110 States and several international organizations voluntarily contribute information to the agency’s illicit trafficking database, which tracks nuclear or other radioactive materials outside authorized custody and control.
On top of this, the IAEA also undertakes various types of on-site visits to assess a State’s specific security vulnerabilities, needs, and capabilities.