Nuclear Security: Ensuring an Effective Role for the IAEA After 2016

Project duration

June 2016 to December 2018

Project staff

Principal investigator: Dr Trevor Findlay, Senior Research Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne
Research assistants: Anthony Heath, Jenna Parker, Zhongzhou Peng


John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


In April 2016 the final biennial Nuclear Security Summit in a series of four was held in Washington DC. A key question looming over the meeting was how to ensure that the gains made by the summit process were sustained. A key role was envisaged for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), notably in an Action Plan (140kb pdf) that envisaged continuing initiatives for the summit participants to strengthen the Agency’s role. The IAEA, as the paramount multilateral body involved in nuclear governance, is a prime candidate for assuming much of the summits' mantle. There is continuing debate, however, among its members about its existing nuclear security role and some opposition, notably from Russia. The Agency itself is often reluctant to take the initiative in expanding its activities. There is therefore a role for outsiders to monitor progress in implementing the summiteers' Action Plan for the IAEA; observe the Agency's own activities in response to both the ending of the summit process and the Action Plan; and to propose measures to enhance the IAEA's contribution to nuclear security.

Aim of the project

This project involves research and nuclear security community engagement designed to focus on ensuring that the IAEA, in the post-nuclear summit era, makes an effective contribution to advancing and sustaining nuclear security.

Project deliverables

The main planned deliverables are three publications and associated presentations:

  • a policy brief presented at a non-governmental forum held in association with the final summit in Washington DC in April 2016
  • a report on the summit outcome containing ideas for follow-up action in mid-2016, which was presented at the December 2016 IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Security; and
  • a final report on the project's findings and ideas for further action and research to be published in December 2018 2017 and presented at a side event during the IAEA Conference on Physical Protection in November 2017

Activities to date

Project leader Dr Trevor Findlay participated in the NGO Nuclear Security Summit meeting on 'Solutions for a Secure Nuclear Future' in Washington DC from 30-31 March 2016. He gave a joint presentation 'Recommendations on Strengthening the Role of the IAEA ' (500kb pdf) with Jennifer Mackby of the Federation of American Scientists on strengthening the role of the IAEA in nuclear security; co-chaired the breakout group on the subject; and was the rapporteur to the conference plenary; the joint paper with Dr Mackby was published by the Partnership for Global Security on the conference website.

Following the summit Dr Findlay wrote an OpEd for the Belfer Center website on the implications for the IAEA.

During his visit to the US for the summit Dr Findlay visited Harvard to discuss nuclear security with the Project on Managing the Atom (of which he remains an Associate) and gave a presentation on IAEA finance and budget which included a recommendation on funding nuclear security as part of the regular IAEA budget in the context of a grand IAEA budgetary bargain.

In May 2016 Dr Findlay met in Sydney with Dr Robert Floyd, head of the Australian Safeguards Office, his colleague Craig Everton and a visiting IAEA inspector to discuss the outcome of the Washington summit and its implications for the IAEA. Australia was the coordinator on the summit's IAEA Action Plan at the summit

On 28 July Dr Findlay gave a talk on 'Global Nuclear Governance and the Role of the IAEA', including on nuclear security, at The University of Melbourne's School of Social and Political Sciences' Governance Cluster

From 26-30 September 2016 Dr Findlay attended the IAEA General Conference in Vienna, participating in side events on the nuclear security issue and gathering information and views on the Nuclear Security Contact Group, which met for the first time in the margins of the conference. He also met with the head of the IAEA's International Nuclear Security Education Network (INSEN) to learn about its activities and toured the IAEA's nuclear laboratories at Seibersdorf (which are equipped to undertake nuclear forensics in the event of a nuclear security incident) and the IAEA's revamped Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) which would be activated in the event of a major nuclear or radiological incident.

On 19 October Dr Findlay gave a presentation 'Global Nuclear Governance Role of the International Atomic Energy Agency' (1.8Mb pdf), including the IAEA's role in nuclear security, to the Victorian branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) in Melbourne to an audience of about 30.

From 5-9 December 2016 Dr Findlay attended the IAEA's International Conference on Nuclear Security: Commitments and Actions in Vienna; he participated in a panel on 'Perspectives on Implementing Obligations under International Instruments for Nuclear Security' and presented a paper on 'Managing the Global Nuclear Security Architecture after the Summits' (135kb pdf) which was later published in the conference proceedings. He also participated in a workshop at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation on 'Nuclear Security Centers of Excellence in Asia: Progress and the Way Forward' and a meeting of the Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group (NSGEG).

In addition the project has:

  • Engaged with Australian government officials in Canberra and Vienna and with other delegations in Vienna with regard to on nuclear security developments at the IAEA, including the establishment of the Nuclear Security Contact Group by several summit participating countries
  • Helped introduce the issue of nuclear security, and the potential role of the UN, to the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters for the first time (Dr Findlay is Chair of the Board for 2017)

Outcomes of activities to date

The outcome of these activities to date has been to raise awareness, at least among those who attended the NGO Summit and the IAEA Nuclear Security Conference, of the challenges faced by the IAEA in filling the shoes of the nuclear security summit. At the NGO Summit many in the audience of about 20 in the breakout group seemed unaware of the extent of existing IAEA activities in nuclear security and the difficulties, political, technical and financial, involved in expanding that role. There were thus indications that the subject was under-researched. At the Nuclear Security Conference the presentation provided novel information to many participants on the inaugural meeting of the new Nuclear Security Contact Group and the encouraging emergence of an industry body, the Nuclear Industry Steering Group for Security (NISGS).

As usual in this type of project it is difficult to assess the policy implications. It is clearly helpful for the summit participants, the IAEA and other post-summit bodies to be aware that someone is monitoring their activities in detail and seeking to hold them to account (as far as the project is aware it is the only one of its kind). There was clearly, for instance, some surprise at the project's revelation that the IAEA Action Plan produced by the summit was actually targeted at the summit participants in their role at the IAEA, not the IAEA Secretariat itself. In policy terms the project plays a useful role in interpreting the reality of decisions made about the IAEA’s role in nuclear security.

Unfortunately, very little emerged from the December 2016 conference to indicate that the Agency is planning a major expansion of its role, but rather that it is taking a 'consolidation' approach. The Summit Action Plan for the IAEA was not mentioned by the IAEA Director-General, Mr Amano, at either the General Conference or the International Conference on Nuclear Security, nor was it mentioned in the final documents or resolutions emanating from either body. One positive development is that the IAEA is organising a conference on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities in November 2017, partly in response to the entry into force in May 2016 of the Amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (rather than as an outcome of the 2016 Summit).

On the substance of the issue, the project has had to adapt to the fact that so far the impact of the last summit on the IAEA has been largely undetectable. The only way that the Action Plan can have an impact on the IAEA from now on is if summit participants pursue it individually or collectively behind the scenes. The obvious vehicle is the Contact Group set up by a group of summit participants. Since this group did not exist when this project was envisaged, the project will now seek to follow and analyze its activities. It will do the same in respect of the new industry group, the NISGS, which also did not exist until the IAEA Nuclear Security Conference. Hence the governance landscape contemplated in the project proposal has changed considerably and the project will adapt accordingly.

The project is also being forced to adapt to the reality of the new US administration of President Donald Trump. It is unclear at this stage whether the US will continue to play its traditional leadership role in nuclear security at the IAEA or even whether US funding of the IAEA will be cut back (which has been mooted in the US Congress for all UN-type organizations). Funding for the United States' own national nuclear security efforts is to be cut significantly according to the Trump Administration's preliminary budget (yet to be passed by Congress). It remains to be seen what affect this will have the IAEA's role in nuclear security, but the project is keeping close watch on developments. More attention may have to be paid by other states like Australia, the Netherlands and South Korea to press forward progress on nuclear security in Vienna and elsewhere.

Further research

The next stages of the project involved:

  • Continuing research on the impact of the end of the summit process on the IAEA, including following the developing role of the Contact Group and NISGS
  • Presentation of the research findings at a side-event during the November 2017 IAEA International Conference on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities. The conference was mainly concerned with how to implement the newly amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) but also had a session on broader nuclear security governance
  • Development of the project web page and posting of all of the publishable deliverables
  • Production of the final project study by December 2018