WASHINGTON -- A top Obama administration official on Tuesday voiced support for the International Atomic Energy Agency expanding its role in the global nuclear security realm.
“We are strongly supportive of the increased attention at IAEA on nuclear security,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in remarks at a State Department conference. “We believe it’s an important mission and we believe they have an important role.”
Earlier this month, representatives from 125 IAEA member states convened in Vienna, Austria, for a ministerial-level conference focused on improving efforts to secure nuclear materials from potential acquisition by terrorists. The agency serves as a nuclear watchdog for the United Nations.
A joint declaration released at the event highlighted the principle that “the responsibility for nuclear security within a state rests entirely with that state.”
The declaration also affirmed “the central role of the IAEA in strengthening the nuclear security framework globally and in leading the coordination of international activities in the field of nuclear security.”
Moniz, who participated in the Vienna conference, said he was encouraged to see “a very, very broad base of support for having nuclear security as an additional focus at IAEA in some sense on par with safety,” which has been a traditional focus of the body.
The U.S. energy chief this week did not say exactly how the watchdog agency might expand its atomic protection activities. A reporter’s calls to the U.S. mission at the International Atomic Energy Agency seeking more information were not returned by press time.
A spokesman for Moniz would not elaborate on the secretary’s comments this week, but noted that the Energy leader said in Vienna that IAEA work on nuclear security should be bolstered.
In his recent official remarks to the IAEA conference, Moniz said “the United States supports increased resources for all pillars of the IAEA’s work, including technical cooperation, nuclear safety and security, and safeguards.”
Washington, he added, “remains committed to the IAEA’s efforts to develop international standards on nuclear and radiological security, and hopes to see those strengthened and implemented.”
“The security of our nuclear materials is a top priority for Secretary Moniz,” Josh McConaha, spokesman for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, said in an e-mailed statement. “International venues like the IAEA present an opportunity to share ideas and best practices that ensure that nuclear material around the globe is as safe as it can be.”
The U.N. agency does offer some nuclear security assistance that member states can voluntarily seek out. Aid in the past has included the provision of radiation detectors, as well as training of member states’ nuclear security professionals. In the last decade, in excess of 120 nations have taken advantage of this training, according to the watchdog organization.
The agency also maintains an Incident and Trafficking Database that documents each new incident of global atomic and radiological material theft or other unpermitted uses involving such substances.
Additionally, the IAEA International Physical Protection Advisory Service offers practical guidance to countries on how to develop domestic rules and regulations for the enactment of international agreements, and provides recommendations on the safeguarding of nuclear and radiological substances.
Asked to respond to Moniz’s Tuesday remarks, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in an e-mail that “the IAEA view is that the ministerial statement, which is the collective view of its member states, speaks for itself and the IAEA does not comment on declarations made by its member states."
At least one U.S.-based expert who attended the Vienna event was not optimistic that the U.N. agency would play a greater nuclear security role anytime soon.
Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said if the ministerial statement “was any indication of the IAEA’s ability to take a leadership role in this issue, it’s not saying much.”
“The problem is, it’s a political problem, particularly on the funding level,” explained Pomper, who supports additional such work. For the International Atomic Energy Agency to expand its role in nuclear security, member states would have to agree to fund such activities through the body’s regular budget. Presently nations underwrite IAEA atomic protections work through voluntary contributions made on an irregular basis.
“I would look for what countries are willing to pledge in next year’s security summit in this regard,” Pomper said, referring to a global nuclear security gathering set to take place in the Netherlands in March 2014.
Moniz’s Vienna address did not include mention of any specific financial contributions by Washington to IAEA nuclear security activities in the future.