Innovative Virtual Methods to Continue Cooperating on Key Nuclear Security Issues during the COVID-19 Global Pandemic
By Ms. Alexandra Meehan, Foreign Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration
By March 2020, all international travel was effectively halted due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Despite this sudden interruption, the United States, in partnership with international counterparts facing the same unprecedented challenges, maintained its responsibility to continued cooperation in nuclear nonproliferation across the globe. Emblematic of that commitment are ongoing activities for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Information Circulars (INFCIRC) 908, “Mitigating Insider Threats” and INFCIRC/909, “Transport Security of Nuclear Materials.” The INFCIRCs serve as vehicles for groups of countries to demonstrate leadership and work together to advance specific nuclear security topical areas. Unable to travel during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration’s (DOE/NNSA) Office of International Nuclear Security worked with key partners to explore opportunities for creating virtual forums to meet and discuss strategies in support of these important initiatives. INFCIRC/908, “Joint Statement on Mitigating Insider Threats,” originally announced at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., consists of two key pillars. First, a commitment to support the IAEA to develop and implement an advanced, practitioner-level training course on insider threat mitigation. Second, implementation of measures to mitigate insider risk by taking a risk-informed, graded approach. Since the 2017 publication of INFCIRC/908, the United States and Belgium hosted an “International Symposium on Insider Threat Mitigation” in Brussels in March 2019; supported the delivery of the IAEA’s first “Advanced Insider Threat Mitigation International Training Course” in July 2019; and launched an “Advancing INFCIRC/908 International Working Group” (IWG) at the IAEA’s 2020 International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS). The IWG and its 12 steering committee members aim to establish an international community of practice that will develop practical tools for insider threat mitigation and will continue to cultivate important international dialogue on five key focus areas of insider threat mitigation: national policy and regulatory frameworks, nuclear security culture, trustworthiness and reliability, physical protection and technical measures, and cybersecurity.
While signatories traveled to Brussels for the 2019 International Symposium, the COVID-19 pandemic made planned, in-person IWC meetings impossible. As a solution, the United States and Belgium convened a diverse steering committee and held its first virtual meeting in October 2020, followed by additional virtual meetings in January, March, and April 2021 to establish its terms of reference, structure, and launch its focus group activities. Each of the steering committee representatives from different nations served as inaugural co-chairs for the focus groups. This structure effectively diversified responsibilities across the entire steering committee, keeping all members actively engaged. Through this committed multilateral effort, important discussions progressed in the midst of the pandemic, and as a result, INFCIRC/908 subscribers increased by two since 2020 – France and Slovenia – for a total of 31 members plus INTERPOL. Please see www.Insiderthreatmitigation.org for updates. Similar to the example above with INFCIRC/908, efforts related to INFCIRC/909, “Transport Security of Nuclear Materials,” also continued despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States, along with Colombia and Romania, decided to build upon the Japanese-hosted “International Transport Security Symposium” (ITSS) in November 2019 to co-host two separate virtual series engagements on the subject of Transport Security. The first one was the “South American Regional Transport Security Symposium” (SARTSS), co-hosted by Colombia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy and the U.S. DOE/NNSA. The second was the “European Regional Transport Security Symposium” (ERTSS), co-hosted by Romania’s National Commission for Nuclear Activities Control (CNCAN) and the U.S. DOE/NNSA. As anticipated, these regional series continued the momentum initiated by Japan following the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit and the ITSS in 2019. With over 40 countries invited, these symposia were effective ways to exchange and promote good practices in nuclear and radioactive material transport security. Each session examined a particular challenge within transport security and included presentations and panel discussions from subject matter experts from around the world. Terrorist activity, supply chains, international guidelines and regulations, and transport operations are just a few of the important topics discussed. Both the SARTSS and the ERTSS showcased the ability to bring together subject matter experts and transport security practitioners virtually to facilitate knowledge-sharing and dialogue on various issues affecting transport security regimes in the two regions. Because of the success of the SARTSS and the ERTSS, planning for additional transport security workshops and symposia in other regions is currently underway. The broad participation in virtual activities supporting INFCIRCs 908 and 909 is a testament to the importance of Insider Threat Mitigation and Transport Security to the international nuclear community. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, there remains strong interest in strengthening nuclear and radiological security regimes through the practical implementation of international guidance, regional cooperation, and continued dialogue. These successes only prove that intentional focus on diversity and inclusion can help promote and sustain resilience, particularly in times of crisis. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating and unfortunately hampered many areas of international cooperation, we are proud to claim success in these two very important focus areas of nuclear security.
Alexandra Meehan is a Foreign Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration. She works in the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, Global Material Security.