By Joshua Isaac

The growing use of nuclear science and technology requires robust security measures to enhance and protect nuclear and other radioactive materials against theft and facilities against sabotage.

This became evident at the International Conference on Nuclear Security: Shaping the Future (ICONS 2024), in Vienna, Austria. The five-day conference, from 20-24 May, organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), focuses on strengthening global nuclear security and addressing the challenges related to new risks, threats, and emerging technologies.

Speaking during the event, Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA’s Director General, underscored the multifaceted nature of nuclear security, saying “Nuclear security is about more than preventing nuclear terrorism. It is about providing clean energy, cutting-edge medicine, nutritious food, and hope for a better tomorrow.”

He added that opportunities to use nuclear and radioactive material depend on a strong and adaptive global nuclear security regime, emphasizing the significance of legal infrastructure that bolsters nuclear security, especially among countries using nuclear and radioactive material.

IAEA DG, Rafael Grossi

The efforts towards nuclear security have been greatly undermined by sabotaging of nuclear reactors as was the case in Belgium’s Tihange nuclear facility; purchase or theft, and detonation of fabricated nuclear weapons “dirty bombs”.

A joint statement released by the Co-presidents, Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia, and Sungat Yessimkhanov, Vice-Minister of Energy of Kazakhstan, highlighted how emerging and innovative technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), present both challenges and benefits for nuclear security.

“Despite some risks and challenges — from climate change and natural disasters to global pandemics — AI products and advanced computing technologies offer new opportunities to strengthen nuclear security regimes,” said Vice-Minister Yessimkhanov. “Strengthening national nuclear security regimes helps to prevent the illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive material.”

The joint statement reaffirmed that nuclear security measures may enhance public confidence in the peaceful use of nuclear applications. The uses range from equipment used for the screening and treatment of diseases, as evident in cancer treatment, to detecting and eliminating harmful residues and contaminants in food products.

The joint statement reaffirms the common goals of nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy and recognizes that nuclear security contributes to international peace and security.

“Our attendance at ICONS, a key event for our global nuclear security community, signals our shared commitment to strengthening nuclear security,” said Assistant Minister Watts. “It provides an opportunity for us to progress aligned commitments and priorities and to work closely on our respective national nuclear security regimes.”

In addition, experts discussed technical and scientific nuclear security issues, including global perspectives on regulations for small modular reactors and the role of nuclear forensics in bolstering international nuclear security, practical uses and potential threats of AI, preparing for and defending against cyber-attacks on sensitive infrastructure, and developing national strategies.

Since the last ICONS conference (February 2020), the IAEA has expanded its nuclear security work. A Nuclear Security Training and Demonstration Centre was inaugurated in October 2023, and 28 events have already been held at the centre.

The Agency also released the 2024 Factsheet for the IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), citing 168 incidents reported by 31 States in 2023. A total of 4243 incidents of illegal or unauthorized activities involving nuclear and other radioactive material have been reported since 1993.

ICONS 2024 with over 2,000 participants is the fourth conference in this series, with the previous sessions being hosted by IAEA in Vienna, Austria in 2013, 2016, and 2020. This conference will inform the preparation of IAEA’s next Nuclear Security Plan, which will cover the period 2026–2029.