Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

The Nuclear Security Summit and the IAEA: Advocating Much and Avoiding Specifics

| Apr. 08, 2016

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington D.C. on 1 April issued a seven-page Action Plan in Support of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It contains steps that the summit participants commit themselves to taking and those they “advocate” the Agency “pursue”. In endorsing this plan, 2016 Summit participants focused more detailed attention on the IAEA than those who participated in the previous four nuclear security summits.

The Action Plan is an acknowledgement of the indispensable, inevitable role of the 60-year old Agency in perpetuating the summits’ legacy. The Vienna-based multilateral organization is lauded as being “crucial for the continuing delivery of outcomes and actions from the nuclear security summits”. This comes after years of speculation as to whether and to what extent the Agency could or should take on the summits’ innovative, high-level approach and activities. In the end, although the IAEA retains its position as the centerpiece of the international nuclear security architecture, with critical coordination, assistance, and promotional roles, it was given no new powers or authorities.

The most significant institutional innovation coming out of the recent summit is a Contact Group comprising summit participants, and additional states that may wish to join, which will meet at least annually in the margins of the IAEA General Conference.

Despite its detail, the Action Plan for the IAEA is heavy on advocacy and light on commitments. This is partly because the IAEA is an autonomous international body, a member of the UN family of organizations, with its own governance arrangements and a membership much broader than that of the NSS. Hence the summiteers are not entitled to issue instructions to the IAEA but can offer “serving suggestions.” The summit participants certainly are a powerful group of IAEA members, most of them represented permanently or frequently on the key Agency governing body, the 35-member Board of Governors. Yet, the Action Plan is far from binding on the Board or the larger IAEA membership represented in the General Conference. Several influential IAEA member states did not attend the Washington NSS, notably Iran (which was not invited) and Russia (which declined).

The language and structure of the Action Plan reflects this reality: it is more wish list than action plan. Couched in cautious terms, it asserts that participating states will carry out the Plan only as it is “consistent with national laws, policies, procedures, capacities, and available resources.” Steps advocated for the Agency will “appropriately promote and advance nuclear security.” Assistance provided in the plan is to be “upon request of a recipient state.” The nuclear security guidance provided by the IAEA to member states is to remain just that, with no suggestion that it evolve into “standards” as in the case of nuclear safety. In any case the Agency will continue to focus only on civilian nuclear materials, with no substantive role envisaged in respect of the remaining four-fifths of global stocks in the hands of the military.

Not only were no new authorities given to the Agency but no specific new funding was pledged, making it unclear how much of the gap left by the end of the summits it can fill. The Plan does refer to the Agency’s need for “reliable and sufficient” funding, implying that the summiteers are committed to supporting an increase in the regular budget allocation for nuclear security (for a detailed analysis of IAEA funding challenges writ large, see here). But nothing in the Plan is legally binding and the language is so vague that it will be impossible to hold states even to their implied political commitments.

Yet, the Action Plan is not without merit, especially when viewed in the context of the strong opposition in the early 2000s to any IAEA involvement in nuclear security. The plan gives strong support, for instance, to the IAEA’s nuclear security conferences, which now include a ministerial meeting. The next of these is to be held in December of this year. The summiteers pledged to attend such meetings “at a high level.” There was also strong endorsement of the Agency’s collaboration with other nuclear security institutions, including through its Nuclear Security Support Center’s involvement with the Centers of Excellence (COEs) being established around the world. The summiteers pledged themselves to advocate a process for sharing their COEs’ good practices, requesting peer review and harmonizing their courses. With the imminent entry-into-force of the 2006 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials the summiteers declared they will advocate for the IAEA to play a central role in assisting states in its implementation, including sharing of good practices and convening regular review meetings.

Some of the most encouraging aspects of the Action Plan are those envisaging greater transparency (although the word is never used) about states’ nuclear security performance. The summiteers pledged themselves to “communicate more generously” the results of review and advisory missions (while not compromising confidential information) and use “information sharing mechanisms managed by the IAEA to build domestic, regional and international confidence in the effectiveness of national nuclear security regimes”. One of the obstacles to global governance in the nuclear security arena has been concern over divulgence of state secrets.

Finally, with regard to soaring concern over cyber security, the Action Plan breaks new ground by pledging that the NSS participants will work with the IAEA to raise awareness of the threat, advocating for the Agency to produce guidance and training, and having it coordinate research and information exchanges to promote cyber “resilience.” One of the most specific recommendations in the whole Action Plan is the suggestion that the IAEA develop a methodology for states to report cyber or computer security attacks, presumably along the lines of its existing Incident and Trafficking Data Base relating to nuclear materials.

While far from revolutionary and in many respects a missed opportunity, the Action Plan does signal to the IAEA that it has the necessary support from key players to press on with and enhance its existing nuclear security plans and programs. Attention now shifts to the IAEA Nuclear Security Conference in December which ideally, will flesh out, endorse and provide funding and the resources for the Action Plan and beyond.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Findlay, Trevor.The Nuclear Security Summit and the IAEA: Advocating Much and Avoiding Specifics .” Nuclear Security Matters, April 8, 2016,