ICONS 2020

February 19, 2020
Margarita Kalinina-Pohl, Miles Pomper

More than 2,000 experts—including 57 ministers—from over 130 countries and 35 international and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) participated in the International Conference on Nuclear Security: Sustaining and Strengthening Efforts (ICONS), February 10–14, 2020. The International Atomic Energy has held three such conferences, beginning in 2013.

The conference agenda covered a large range of technical issues related to nuclear security, focusing particularly on “insider” threats, transport security, and the use of emerging technologies. The conference also featured a series of events focusing on women as well as a panel focusing on the work of NGOs—including the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP)—in bolstering nuclear security.

panel, slides and audience

CNS Representatives and Alumni at ICONS 2020

Senior Fellow Miles Pomper and Senior Program Manager Margarita Kalinina-Pohl represented CNS at ICONS throughout the week, serving as speakers and moderators at various panels and side events.

Presenting Research and Recommendations

Pomper presented a revised and updated version of a CNS Occasional Paper he co-authored with CNS/VCDNP colleagues Leonard Spector and John Carlson titled, “The Other Fissile Material: Strengthening National and International Plutonium Management Approaches.” The updated paper, which added Mycle Schneider and Tatsujiro Suzuki as co-authors, focused on the largely neglected nuclear security risks posed by plutonium separation (also known as reprocessing), and offers proposals to mitigate and ultimately eliminate these dangers. Terrorists, for example, might use separated plutonium in an improvised nuclear weapon or a radioactive dispersal device (“dirty bomb”). In countries such as Japan and South Korea, the accumulation of spent fuel in densely packed ponds pose both a terrorist target for sabotage and an inherent safety risk of fire. The authors urge reprocessing countries to consider safer dry-cask storage of reprocessed spent fuel.

In his capacity as the chair of the Fissile Materials Working Group—an international coalition of 80 NGOs working against nuclear terrorism—Pomper also moderated a side event on the 2021 Review Conference of the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. That convention—the only legally binding treaty requiring countries to protect nuclear materials and security—entered into force in 2016 and calls on states to “review the implementation of this Convention and its adequacy as concerns the preamble, the whole of the operative part and the annexes in light of the then prevailing situation.” To help member states make that determination, the side event surveyed recent technological developments and how they have altered threats to nuclear security and the means to mitigate them. And, since the amended convention only requires a single review conference, panelists also called for states parties to establish a regular schedule of subsequent review conferences to continue tracking relevant developments.

Margarita Kalinina-Pohl spoke at the ICONS side event on “Improving Radiological Source Security,” co-hosted by the Government of Finland and the Henry L. Stimson Center, along with panelists from the Radiation and Safety Authority of Finland, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Malaysian Nuclear Agency, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the IAEA. Kalinina-Pohl discussed CNS’s innovative, collaborative work with the governments of Moldova and Malaysia to secure “orphan” radioactive sources and strengthen transport security of commercial radioactive sources. Ms. Sabariah Kader, a former CNS visiting CRDF-RCMF fellow from the Malaysian Nuclear Agency, shared her organization’s experience in collaborating with CNS on enhancing transport security with the help of geospatial analysis and online surveys. This side event exemplified the work of the IAEA, other international organizations, national governments, civil society, and other stakeholders in improving the security of radiological sources.

The Efficacy of NGO Capacity Building

During the main conference session on NGO capacity building, Kalinina-Pohl presented the paper “NGO-Government Partnerships in Strengthening Radiological Security,” co-authored with Pomper, Kader, Michael Duitsman, and Ionel Balan (of the Moldovan national nuclear regulatory authority). The session also featured presentations by representatives of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, the World Institute for Nuclear Security, Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the World Nuclear Association, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, represented by MIIS alumna Jessica Bufford. In her presentation, Kalinina-Pohl explored how the democratization of data and a growing suite of online tools and technologies are changing perceptions of how NGOs contribute to the field of WMD nonproliferation and nuclear security. She also gave specific examples of the partnerships CNS has developed through its capacity-building activities and reputable training programs. Following the presentations, a discussion with the audience focused on how to continue engaging NGOs, especially those in other countries, with nuclear security stakeholders, including governments, industry, and international organizations. Having an NGO-designated session and discussion as part of the official IAEA ICONS 2020 agenda demonstrated progress in IAEA member states’ recognition of the role they can play in improving nuclear security.

Icons 2020 Essay Finalists

Icons 2020 Essay Finalists

As an International Nuclear Security Education Network judges coordinator, Kalinina-Pohl also participated in an award ceremony for the winners of the IAEA’s 2020 International Essay Competition on Nuclear Security for Students and Early Career Professionals. Essay winners from Jordan, Ukraine, and the United States received cash prizes and certificates from the IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi.

Achievements of CNS Education and Training on Display

Another notable side event was an event for past winners of the Robin Copeland Memorial Fellowship, which recognizes and supports the work of women in nuclear security. The event featured four former CNS visiting fellows who were recipients of this prestigious fellowship including: Dr. Amira Elabd, Egyptian Nuclear and Radiological Regulatory Authority; Ms. Jeaneth Kabini, South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, Ms. Urvashi Rathore, Indian Observer Research Foundation, and Kader. They shared their professional work and achievement, as well as challenges they face as women pursuing nuclear-related careers. All of them noted the importance of their training at CNS and the boost this fellowship gave to their professional growth and careers.

Eight people in front of the conference sign

CRDF event for RCMF alumni (left to right): Nilsu Goren (CRDF Global), Sabariah Kader, Amira Elabd, Margarita Kalinina-Pohl, Elena Sokova, Jeaneth Kabini, Urvashi Rathore, and Pat Nicholas (Carnegie Corporation of New York).

The ICONS and other events which took place during the week of February 10–14 in Vienna once again demonstrated the effectiveness of education and training. The conference had a large cohort of CNS/MIIS alumni (students, former fellows, and participants of other CNS courses) who are either working at the IAEA or other international organizations—such as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization and UNODC—national governments, or other nongovernmental organizations. Witnessing their professional growth and achievements attests to the true core of the CNS mission to train a new generation of nonproliferation specialists.

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