by Panagiotis Kontakos,


The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) functions as a “global platform” for nuclear security efforts. The Agency works to enhance the contribution of nuclear energy to peace and prosperity around the world while helping ensure that nuclear material is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other explosive nuclear devices. This analysis will present the role of the IAEA in nuclear security as well as suggestions for a more effective function of the organization concerning its huge mandate to fight nuclear threats.

Historical approach

The IAEA’s role in nuclear security dates back to 1970 when it began developing guidelines for the physical protection of nuclear material, which eventually became known as INFCIRC/225. The guidelines have been periodically updated. The Agency subsequently contributed to bringing to fruition the 1980 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Agency started providing ad hoc nuclear security assistance to former Soviet states. The body charged with providing such assistance was formalized into the International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS) peer-reviewed missions, the first of which was conducted in 1996. Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001 against the U.S., the Agency adopted a different profile on nuclear security, notably by establishing an Office of Nuclear Security (in the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security), launching its first four-year Nuclear Security Plan and setting up a Nuclear Security Fund. Although it is the least well-resourced of the IAEA’s major programs, the Agency’s nuclear security activities, personnel, and budgets have all been increasing steadily since 2001 and member states are increasingly availing themselves of its advice, services, and assistance, especially through IPPAS and the development of Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plans (INSSPs). The Agency also works to increase the number of states as parties to nuclear security treaties for which it is the depositary, notably the CPPNM and its 2005 Amendment. In 2012, the Agency marked its first decade of increased involvement in nuclear security. In 2013, the bureaucratic status of nuclear security within the Agency was enhanced when the Office of Nuclear Security was upgraded to a division of its own. (IAEA, Promoting Nuclear Security: What the IAEA is doing)

The international legal instruments of Nuclear Security (IAEA, n.d.)

The legal foundation for nuclear security consists of international instruments and recognized principles designed to control nuclear material and other radioactive substances. This wide range of instruments, many of which were developed under IAEA auspices, provides a framework for using such material in ways that protect all States. Responsibility for nuclear security rests entirely on each Member State. However, a number of States have not adhered to relevant instruments or implemented them effectively through their national legal and regulatory frameworks. This situation leaves gaps in the global system that can be exploited by terrorist or criminal elements.

The universal adherence to relevant instruments, harmonization of national legal and regulatory frameworks, and effective application of relevant measures could contribute towards combating nuclear terrorism. The IAEA seeks to inform and advise States about the relevant international legal instruments, and encourages implementation of them.

There is no single international instrument that addresses nuclear security in a comprehensive manner. The international regulatory framework for nuclear security relies mainly on the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and its Amendment; the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources (Code of Conduct) and its Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources; the Safeguards Agreements and their Additional Protocols; the Nuclear Terrorism Convention; and the United Nations Security Council resolutions 1540 and 1373.

The CPPNM and its Amendment are legally binding international instruments in the area of physical protection of nuclear material. They establish measures related to the prevention, detection and punishment of offenses related to nuclear material in international transport.

In the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources and its Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources, the States commit themselves to reinforcing the safety and security of radioactive sources by establishing effective controls, and to protect against, and ensure the timely detection of cases of theft, loss or unauthorized use or removal of radioactive sources.

The requirement for efficient control of nuclear material and for the establishment of the related systems contained in Safeguards Agreements and their Additional Protocols is a major component in the international nuclear security infrastructure. The objective of safeguards is the timely detection of diversion of significant quantities of nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities to the manufacture of nuclear weapons or of other nuclear explosive devices or for purposes unknown, and deterrence of such diversion by the risk of early detection. With regard to nuclear security, the objectives of the States’ physical protection system should be to establish conditions, which would minimize the possibilities for unauthorized removal of nuclear material and/or for sabotage

Regarding these issues, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism was opened for signature on 14 September 2005. It details offenses relating to the unlawful and intentional possession and use of radioactive material or a radioactive device, and use or damage of nuclear facilities. The Convention entered into force in July 2007.

The United Nations Security Council resolutions 1373 (2001) and 1540 (2004) address, among other things, the threat of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation and call for national, regional and international cooperation to strengthen the global response to these challenges and threats to international security.

A “Global Platform”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sees itself as the global “platform” for nuclear security efforts and it has a “central role.” The IAEA Medium-Term Strategy describes the Agency’s strategic objective in the nuclear security field as being “to establish and achieve global acceptance of an agreed international framework for nuclear security and support its application”. As a standing international organization with a deserved reputation for scientific and technical expertise in the nuclear field generally, the Agency plays a normative and awareness-raising role in enhancing nuclear security. The IAEA’s legitimacy derives in part from its close relationship with the United Nations (UN), its longevity, and its potential universality that other forums lack. IAEA is a forum for global discussion about nuclear security. Nuclear Security Summits, General, international and technical conferences promote interaction between official delegations, outside experts and academics. The Nuclear Security Information Management System and the Incident and Trafficking Database, as well as meetings, training endeavors and workshops, enable the exchange of ideas. Awareness of its activities is ensured through Information Exchange Meetings. (IAEA Annual Report 2017, p. 82)

A Nuclear Security Guidance Source

The nuclear security recommendations, published in the Nuclear Security Series, raise awareness on the Agency’s role on nuclear security matters without being legally binding documents. They advise states in terms of designing their legal nuclear security framework. The treaties and codes of conduct could be fully implemented by the states, under the support of the Agency. However, the extensive consultations needed to create new guidance series don’t facilitate the rapid developments needed in the fight against recent threats, like cyberattacks (IAEA Annual Report 2018, p. 20).

Combating Nuclear Terrorism

Terrorists may attempt to steal a nuclear weapon or acquire the nuclear material necessary to build a nuclear device. They might also try to obtain radioactive materials in order to make a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) or the so-called “dirty bomb”. They would maybe make an effort to sabotage nuclear power stations, research reactors, storage facilities or transport operations aiming at spreading radioactive contamination.

Taking into consideration the multiplicity of possibilities for terrorists, States working in cooperation with IAEA have always to consider a comprehensive approach to combating nuclear terrorism. Priority is being put on physical protection of all nuclear materials, radioactive materials and transport systems based on national threat security. The regulatory control of nuclear and radioactive material, as well as the detection and interdiction of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials, must be understood as key priorities as well. The coordination of nuclear safety, security and safeguards systems for maximum benefits seems necessary.

Prevention activities aim to protect nuclear and other radioactive material from malicious acts. Detection and response activities aim to empower the capabilities of States to uncover illegal acts and possession of nuclear and radioactive material and to effectively respond to malicious acts or threats. Assessment, analysis and coordination include evaluation missions, cooperation with bilateral and multilateral support programs and information collection and evaluation. For that reason, the IAEA works together with other international and regional organizations such as Interpol and Europol on coordinating activities related to nuclear security. The organization also participates in various endeavors joining Member-States and regional organizations in many initiatives such as the European Union’s strategy against the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. (IAEA, Promoting Nuclear Security: What the IAEA is doing)

Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plans (INSSPs)

In order to develop and implement their national nuclear security “regimes”, the Secretariat assists the states, which draft their plans. INSSPs indicate the need for cooperation between the IAEA, the state and a potential donor, in order to guarantee the effective use of sources. Nevertheless, not even half of the states have adopted them. States with advanced nuclear capacities feel confident in managing their own nuclear security. States with limited capacities believe they don’t need assistance due to the small amount of elements they have to account for. A bigger effort by the Agency to publish the positive impact of INSSPs would have a positive influence on the confidence of the States concerning the Agency’s activities. (Nuclear Security Report 2012, p. 6)

Peer review and advisory missions

Peer support is provided by the International Physical Protection Advisory Services (IPPAS) after the state’s request in order to implement international instruments. The reduction of annual missions is related to the lack of enough experts. Workshops are organized in order to prepare future experts for IPPAS missions, which should be customary and not voluntary. Despite the confidentiality of missions’ conclusions, a published summary of these reports by the states would enable other ones to learn from their experience. (IAEA Annual Report 2016, p. 86)

International Nuclear Security Advisory Service (INSServ), composed of international experts, evaluates the state’s nuclear security legal framework. After considering the IAEA Nuclear Security Series, they propose alternative practices. Priority is given by the Agency to IPPAS missions. However, INSServ missions could be equally helpful for domestic security regimes. (IAEA Annual Report 2016, pp. 9-10)

Education and Training

Face-to-face and e-learning training sessions and programmes are organized by the IAEA. New modules could be provided in evolving topics, like information security, and in even more languages. Nonetheless, face-to-face learning cannot be replaced by e-learning, which includes low completion and uncertain gained knowledge. The International Nuclear Security Education Network (INSEN) helps the Member States develop national training programs and supports the production of textbooks.

Sharing of information is also possible through the Nuclear Security Support Centers Network, which holds annual meetings. Collaboration between centers and national developments would make states less skeptical about security implications. The IAEA could inform its members about the advantages of these centers and support the creation of regional ones. (IAEA Annual Report 2018, pp. 93-95)

Funding and Management

The funding by donors and recipients has been increased since 2017. However, donors put conditions on their contributions, for example funding specific projects or regions. The regular budget of the Agency cannot support all the requests. The lack of permanent staff results in a long-term loss of IAEA’s memory. A more transparent approach in the way of spending funds would contribute to a better political and budget support by the states.

In addition, the states need to know the outcome of the nuclear security impact of the IPPAS missions. An interconnected Risk Management process at the IAEA would be helpful due to the lack of guidelines for performance assessment. A true constraint is the skepticism of the states to inform the Agency of the outcome of nuclear security projects. A more transparent approach with respect to national security would be the key in that direction. (Findlay, 2013, pp. 18-19)

Nuclear Security Plan 2022-2025

The current NSP is innovative in terms of planned purposes and qualitative implementation. Cybersecurity, insider threats, environmental protection and security culture should be also viewed as priorities of the NSP 2022-2025. IAEA’s activities should be shared publicly, in order to enforce voluntary financial contributions. The Division of Nuclear Security needs a clear internal strategy to assess the risks of its activities. The conferences should also be result-driven. The Agency should encourage the states to host IPPAS or INSServ missions. The evaluation of the impact of the program would be empowered through getting feedback from the states and through reports mentioning management and staffing challenges. A “need-to-share” culture would fight against the bureaucratic complexity of the IAEA.

The Agency should focus on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, counter the threat of nuclear terrorism, and quickly respond to global nuclear incidents and cyberattacks by obtaining the necessary infrastructure. Expanded trade and changing technologies may enable uncontrolled proliferation threats. Securing radioactive materials, deploying radiation detection systems to detect illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and weapons, increasing cybersecurity awareness through regulations and training and carrying out nuclear forensic activities should be considered as the key priorities of the 2022-2025 Nuclear Security Plan.


The Agency is expanding its role in global nuclear security and its importance for global peace is invaluable. However, new parameters related to the progression of technology and the terrorism threats constitute some of the challenges that the Agency is called to face. International cooperation would enforce IAEA’s role as a global “platform” for nuclear security efforts. In our globalized society with the rapid movement of people, goods and ideas, opportunities exist as never before for building a global village based on equality, peace and respect of human rights.



Findlay, T. (2013). The IAEA’s Nuclear Security Role. Available here.

(IAEA). IAEA Annual Report 2016.

(IAEA). IAEA Annual Report 2017.

(IAEA). IAEA Annual Report 2018.

(IAEA). Nuclear Security Report 2012.

IAEA (2011). «Nuclear Security Series No. 13.» Available here.

IAEA Website (2019). Regulatory Infrastructure. Available here.

IAEA (n.d.). Promoting Nuclear Security: What the IAEA is doing. Available here.