Nuclear Security Summit preview: Promises alone won’t keep radioactive sources safe

By Jonathan David Herbach | March 6, 2014

Every year governments report several cases of radioactive sources being lost or stolen. When Mexican thieves recently hijacked a truck containing cobalt-60—cargo considered “extremely dangerous” by the International Atomic Energy Agency—the news made international headlines, but the event was just one of the more visible of its kind. According to the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database, in 2012 alone there occurred more than 100 incidents of theft, loss, illegal possession, or other unauthorized activity involving radioactive sources. And that number only accounts for events that participating governments chose to report.

The danger is that radioactive sources, when either combined with conventional explosives to create a “dirty bomb” or spread by such means as a radiological incendiary device, can cause widespread disruption and panic, as well as significant damage to health, property and the environment. This makes them highly attractive to terrorists. Yet the international approach to dealing with these threats and risks has remained founded primarily on voluntary arrangements, in particular the IAEA’s Code of Conduct for the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources—a non-binding set of guidelines. Such noncompulsory measures are not enough. Incidents like the Mexican theft in December, or the robbery earlier in 2013 of a radiography camera containing iridium-192 in the United Kingdom, should serve as a wake-up call to the continued shortcomings in the radioactive source security framework. These shortcomings would be best addressed by a binding convention.

Laying the groundwork. Bringing together more than 50 heads of state or government, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) that will be held in March in The Hague and the likely final summit in 2016, offer good opportunities for advocating measures aimed at strengthening the international legal framework that underpins nuclear security efforts. 

Up until now, such efforts have primarily been directed at encouraging broader adherence to existing instruments, including the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. While maximizing the use of existing measures is essential to achieving NSS objectives, participants need to look beyond the current legal structure to other possibilities that present potentially significant benefits, such as a binding convention on the security of radioactive sources.

At the 2012 NSS in Seoul, participating states expanded their scope to address the risks posed by vulnerable radioactive sources in addition to nuclear material. This was a highly positive development. The Seoul communiqué, or outcome document, encouraged governments to take a few specific steps, including adhering to the Code of Conduct and relevant IAEA recommendations, and establishing national registers of high-activity radioactive sources. Without a doubt, if carried out, these steps represent an important move toward increasing the effectiveness of radioactive source security. The voluntary steps, however, are not a substitute for the added value of creating legally binding obligations.

Why a convention? Progress toward a binding convention on radioactive source security will require convincing states that the time-consuming negotiation process is the best way to serve international and domestic security interests. Many states, including those that are participating in the NSS, acknowledge that issues remain with respect to radioactive source security, but still are resistant to the idea of a new convention. This reluctance is largely due to a belief that a new legally binding instrument would not represent significant gains above and beyond what is already in place. Therefore, the argument goes, time and energy can be better spent encouraging broader adherence to the voluntary arrangements.

But though some states have made a political commitment to implement the voluntary Code of Conduct, it is unclear to what extent its provisions have in fact been put into practice at the national level. This is problematic because when it comes to preventing terrorists from using radioactive sources, every state has a fundamental interest in knowing that every other state is taking the necessary measures. And if governments are not complying, there is currently no way to hold them accountable.

In light of these facts, the benefits of a binding convention are clear. First, it would stimulate broader adherence to recognized principles and norms, by demonstrating increased and more credible commitment on the part of states that become parties to the convention.

Second, a binding convention could establish arrangements for information sharing and consultation, which would help build confidence that the rules were being followed. Triennial meetings are already held to exchange information and lessons learned with respect to the Code of Conduct, but participation is voluntary. Such a process could be made mandatory.

Third, a binding convention would establish consequences for non-compliance. Conventions often include provisions to facilitate cooperation on scientific developments and ensure access to technologies and materials. So implementing the convention’s baseline security measures, for instance, could be made a prerequisite for receiving radioactive sources or getting access to markets for source producers. Not complying with the binding obligations, then, could mean loss of access to technologies, materials and markets.

Fourth, even in the absence of required reviews or monitoring of compliance, the form of commitment itself—a convention, or treaty—will function as a type of assurance.

How to get there. The NSS process provides an opportunity for participating states to work toward a convention on radioactive source security. As a first step, NSS states could actively support and facilitate an IAEA working group to seriously assess the merits of the idea. Then, any eventual negotiations will require a high level of political commitment on the part of states, something that willing NSS countries could lead the way on.

Meanwhile the significant amount of attention garnered by a meeting of heads of state can be harnessed to raise public awareness on the issue of radioactive source security, and thereby increase engagement and subsequent pressure to take ambitious steps to strengthen the framework.

There is already substantial agreement on essential principles and norms related to the security of radioactive sources, reflected in the voluntary instruments. Leaders participating in the G-8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the 2010 NPT Review Conference, have all expressed support for these principles and norms. Therefore a strong basis for discussion already exists. The more a convention follows and codifies already agreed-upon principles and norms, the higher compliance is likely to be, and the higher compliance is likely to be, the more states will be willing to enter into binding agreements.

It is perhaps hard to imagine governments being eager to enter into negotiations for a new convention in light of persistent difficulties in garnering broader adherence to existing instruments. However, states have considered a binding convention on the security of radioactive sources for more than a decade. It is clear that such a convention would add value to the existing regime. At a time when high-level attention is still being devoted to nuclear security by way of the NSS process, it is hard to imagine a better moment at which to pursue such a goal.

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