x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Nuclear policemen open doors

With worrying trends emerging in the trafficking of nuclear materials, the IAEA is identifying security concerns for members.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the outgoing director general of the IAEA, says the gravest threat faced by the world is of an extremist group getting hold of nuclear weapons or materials. The agency's role is to prevent this from happening.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the outgoing director general of the IAEA, says the gravest threat faced by the world is of an extremist group getting hold of nuclear weapons or materials. The agency's role is to prevent this from happening.

Earlier this year, in preparation for launching its civilian nuclear power programme, the UAE signed the UN's additional protocol on nuclear safeguards.

The move was far more than a matter of protocol. As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disclosed last week, threats to nuclear security may be rising. "The world changed dramatically after the atrocities of September 11, 2001. We have had to respond to the uncovering of a sophisticated covert network dealing in sensitive nuclear technology, which made it alarmingly easy to acquire nuclear weapons knowledge and technology," Mohammed ElBaradei, the outgoing director general of the agency, said in a speech.

"The gravest threat faced by the world is of an extremist group getting hold of nuclear weapons or materials." At a press briefing last week at the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna, Viacheslav Turkin, a nuclear security officer, outlined several of what he called worrying trends emerging from the latest data on illicit trafficking in nuclear materials compiled by the agency. "We are seeing the emergence of groups that specialise in nuclear trafficking," Mr Turkin said. "There appear to be more serious players in the market. We are seeing connections to terrorist groups."

Some incidents of unauthorised possession of radioactive materials involved enriched uranium, Mr Turkin said. Such material can be used either to fuel nuclear power plants or to make atomic bombs, and is at the heart of the long-running international dispute over Iran's nuclear programme. The recently updated data set, spanning a period from 1993 to last year, pointed to security vulnerabilities during the transportation of nuclear materials, problems with the storage and disposal, shortcomings in efforts to recover lost or stolen materials and in the detection of thefts and losses.

Contributing to the IAEA's illicit trafficking database, which enables the agency to identify nuclear security concerns with the aim of helping member states to address them, will now be among the UAE's nuclear safeguards responsibilities. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the IAEA invited journalists to tour some of its safeguards facilities, providing insight into how the agency conducts nuclear inspections, and what it expects of member countries that have signed the additional protocol.

First stop, on the 9th floor of the IAEA's headquarters, was the satellite imagery room, where analysts with nuclear industry backgrounds pore over high-resolution photographs of nuclear facilities snapped from orbiting satellites. Karen Steinmaus, who heads the team, said a typical work assignment would be to check the specifications for a nuclear site provided by an IAEA member nation against the latest satellite imagery available from commercial sources. The analysts would look for new construction, connections such as pipes or roadways to installations outside the declared site's perimeter, steam rising from cooling towers, or even unusually full parking lots.

"We would be looking at all signs of site activity. Usually nuclear facilities are pretty remote, and one of the main ways to get there would be by car," Ms Steinmaus explained. Shadows might reveal construction equipment such as cranes that can be difficult to spot from above. The presence of unexplained containers could provide clues to undeclared activities inside unremarkable buildings. A building resembling an innocuous warehouse might house equipment for uranium enrichment, which could be linked to weapons development, Ms Steinmaus said.

The IAEA uses commercial and public rather than classified government image sources to preserve its independence. "For an emergency situation, we can call on one of our vendors to get an image by the next day," Ms Steinmaus said. On the 13th floor of the IAEA secretariat, Wolfgang Zahradnik oversees the training of the agency's nuclear facilities inspectors. "We want to make sure that if a container is sealed, it has not been opened," he said. But if unauthorised activity or seal tampering did take place, the agency would know about it, and in some cases would know exactly when the seal was opened.

For the most part, the IAEA deploys numbered metal seals that clip together in two parts. On the inside, each has been etched with a unique set of scratches that acts as a fingerprint. Seals of this type can be opened only by a special machine in the IAEA's seals laboratory, or by cutting the metal. In the past year, the IAEA has been introducing electronic seals with fibre-optic wiring. The units, about twice the size of a mobile phone, automatically record the times and dates when they are opened or closed and contain backup batteries to keep them functioning during power disruptions.

Seals of either type are often used to guarantee the uninterrupted operation of surveillance cameras placed by the IAEA at nuclear sites. Such cameras can be installed only with the consent of member countries, but the agency retains the sole right to decide when and how often its cameras will take pictures. "There are some countries we don't tell what we are doing," Mr Zahradnik said. Seven floors above the training laboratory, James Regula heads the unit that increasingly processes data sent electronically from surveillance cameras placed at nuclear sites around the world, reducing the need for site visits by inspectors.

The unit's information technology specialists also trouble-shoot from afar, performing tasks such as rebooting computers, coaxing cameras to transmit data, or changing the frequency with which pictures are snapped. The IAEA has been developing remote monitoring systems for the past 12 years, but they were consolidated within Mr Regula's unit only a year ago. His team of engineers and programmers have plenty of work ahead to wire more cameras to the remote monitoring network (currently only about 400 out of more than 1,000 are connected) and to customise computer applications for automated surveillance. But often the main obstacles are political rather than technical.

"We'd like to get all our cameras connected. We have the capacity and we're ready to do it. Now, it's a matter of negotiating with the member states," Mr Regula said. "Member states may be worried about the security of the data. It's unfortunate, because this is safer than hand-carrying removable media through an airport." The IAEA uses virtual private network technology, which employs encryption to keep authenticated data secure over the internet. Mr Regula likened this to creating a heavily protected tunnel for data to pass safely through the public network.

"We have to be very careful about authentication," he said. "Authentication is a key concept for [nuclear] safeguards." Countries that sign the additional protocol agree to remote monitoring of their nuclear sites. The IAEA is responsible for co-ordinating emergency responses to nuclear or radiological incidents, and has a team on call around the clock for this purpose. Only 14 people work at the agency's incident and emergency centre (IEC), but they can call on more than 100 other nuclear specialists at the IAEA and many more within member states.

According to the IEC's head, Warren Stern, the centre's day-to-day duties include providing training in emergency response to member countries. Once or twice a year it conducts drills involving simulated nuclear emergencies. The UAE is among many states that have undergone such training. "We encourage new nuclear countries to ask for a nuclear preparedness review. We identify gaps and prepare action plans for filling the gaps," Mr Stern said.

Seibersdorf, on the outskirts of the Austrian capital, is the location of the IAEA's "clean laboratory", its main facility for analysing samples of materials collected from declared or suspected nuclear sites. For logistical reasons, journalists were not invited to tour the facility last week. But its main function, according to the IAEA, is "to verify that material under agency safeguards is not diverted for non-peaceful purposes".

After international concerns about Iraq's nuclear capabilities emerged earlier this decade, the mandate of the IAEA's safeguards inspectorate was extended to encompass the search for undeclared nuclear activities and, just as importantly, the confirmation of their absence. The laboratory therefore analyses samples and smears collected at nuclear facilities to check that their use is in line with the member countries' declarations. It also uses ultra-sensitive techniques to analyse samples of water, soil and vegetation for traces of radioactivity, allowing the IAEA's technical staff to track the origin of any material detected.

Even with such facilities in place, the IAEA felt more should be done to enhance global nuclear security. It suggested the formation of a new international organisation as a forum for nuclear security professionals to interact. Last year, the Vienna-based World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) was launched with funding from a private US foundation and the governments of Canada, Norway and the US.

Roger Howsley, the executive director of the organisation, told reporters last week: "The gap WINS fills is that nuclear security remains something that people do because the regulators require it, not because it's a core belief and value. The goal is to get nuclear security to the same level as nuclear safety." Operational safety at nuclear facilities was greatly improved after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, but in some parts of the world, security has lagged, Mr Howsley said. "Security is not uniformly good."

Dr ElBaradei, sharing those concerns, said last week that 25 member states without nuclear weapons still had no comprehensive safeguards agreements in force, and another 73 had not signed the IAEA's additional protocols. "For these countries, our ability to detect undeclared activities is severely limited," he said. tcarlisle@thenational.ae