Maintaining the Balance Between Development and Nuclear Security

By Ms. Ingrid Kirsten, Senior Research Associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation


When talking about enhancing nuclear security, we must consider the interplay between nuclear security and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and nuclear technology. Peaceful uses have an important role to play in accelerating global socio-economic development, especially given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. To realize peaceful uses’ potential in full, access to nuclear technology for power and non-power applications must be improved and expanded, as must our ability to use this technology in a safe, secure, and sustainable manner. In doing so, we will ultimately enhance human security.

Photo Credit: Petr Pavlicek/IAEA

There have been a number of global initiatives since 2001 aimed at enhancing nuclear security. For the purpose of this article, I will mention only some of the key ones.

In 2004 the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1540, requiring all States to implement and enforce appropriate laws aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, their means of delivery, and related materials. In 2005 the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) was adopted, obliging adherent States to take all practicable measures to prevent nuclear terrorism inside and outside their territories. In 2006, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) was established. Starting with the US and Russia, 86 States now cooperate on strengthening global capacity to prevent, detect and respond to nuclear terrorism.

Between 2010 and 2016, four Nuclear Security Summits, initiative of US President Barack Obama, were convened with the participation of 58 Heads of State. The summits focused on the security of materials and facilities used for peaceful nuclear applications, contributed to strengthened international norms and standards in this regard, and raised awareness of nuclear security at the highest level. Since then, a ministerial-level international conference on nuclear security (ICONS), is convened on a regular basis under the auspices of the IAEA.

The Contribution of Peaceful Uses

Global challenges such as climate change, poverty, hunger, and disease require further action to expand access to nuclear technologies and applications for peaceful uses. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reduced the timeframe for action in this regard, derailing much of the progress made to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Now more than ever, the innovation provided by nuclear science and technology is required to fast-track development. Among the many applications of nuclear technologies improving the quality of our daily lives, there are non-power applications that require the use of high-activity radioactive sources (such as cobalt-60 and cesium-137), which are subject to security concerns. These include radiation used for cancer treatment, the eradication and control of major insect pests, the sterilization of medical equipment, food safety, and the improvement of crop yields and their resilience to the impact of climate change. Improving and expanding access to these technologies in developing countries would significantly increase food and nutrition security, improve human health and socio-economic development.

Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA

Reliable access to electricity is one of the preconditions for sustainable development. Currently, there are 30 developing countries interested in or embarking on new nuclear power programs. Given the financial and human resources required for traditional large-scale nuclear power plants, it is unlikely that many of these countries will be able to embark on nuclear power. For these countries, small modular reactors (SMRs) could provide a viable alternative if the technology lives up to its promise of being more affordable and safer than traditional power plants. It could also offer the potential to limit the risk of facility sabotage or attack and resulting radiation release concerns, as SMRs will be designed with characteristics that reduce the risk of dispersal of radioactive material. It is also worth noting that the International Energy Agency, in its 2020 report on the world energy outlook, identifies SMRs as one of the technology innovations that would be needed to reverse climate change by 2050.

Enhancing nuclear security through the expansion of peaceful uses

There are numerous challenges to realizing the full potential of peaceful uses. Key amongst these is that policymakers are more aware of the risks associated with peaceful uses than with their benefits. Subsequently, peaceful uses are not included in the policy frameworks of developing countries, especially in those countries without nuclear power plants or research reactors. Concomitantly development assistance projects do not involve peaceful uses.

Nuclear security concerns related to the use, storage, transport, and disposal of high-activity radioactive sources are increasing the cost of these sources, making them harder to obtain. Alternative technologies that use electricity to produce radiation are available, especially for cancer treatment. However, these technologies are not likely to replace radioactive sources in all applications in the near future.

Developing countries often feel overwhelmed by nuclear security measures that are continually evolving and are concerned that these measures are limiting their access to peaceful uses. Rather than enhancing nuclear security by adding more security measures and embarking on new security initiatives, a more productive approach would be to fully implement the system we have established with the IAEA at its center to ensure that these technologies and applications are accessible, safe, secure, and sustainable.

Instead of emphasizing the threat of nuclear technology, the contribution of safe, secure, and sustainable peaceful uses should be promoted, and we should focus on improving and expanding access to nuclear technologies. As the access to nuclear technologies increases, so will the safety and security infrastructure for their use and the cadre of nuclear professionals that understand the value of nuclear safety and security. This approach will serve to strengthen the global nuclear security architecture.

Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA

Defining Security

Nuclear security differs from human security in that the former focuses on the protection of nuclear and other radioactive materials and facilities from theft, sabotage, and misuse, whilst the latter focuses on the protection of individuals from the effects of this misuse but also includes other threats such as poverty and disease.

Development is at the heart of the security needs of most developing countries. These countries prioritize developing robust agriculture, industrial, and health care sectors and affordable and reliable sources of electricity. Access to nuclear technologies and their peaceful applications are the reasons why most developing countries join the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The developed world, in particular, was made acutely aware of its vulnerability to the threat posed by non-State actors on 11 September 2001. In response to the terror attacks against the United States, the use, transport, storage, and disposal of nuclear and other radioactive materials, as well as the physical protection of nuclear facilities, became the focus of international nuclear security measures adopted to serve as the bulwark against nuclear terrorism.

Enhancing nuclear security

The IAEA plays a vital role in global nuclear governance and has a central role in facilitating international cooperation in the field of nuclear security.

Currently, 147 of the 171 Member States of the IAEA receive services that help them address key development priorities in areas such as health and nutrition, food and agriculture, water and the environment, industrial applications, and electricity production. The Agency not only makes these technologies and applications available, but it also assists States in developing and implementing a robust, necessary, and complementary nuclear safety and security infrastructure for their use. These measures protect nuclear and other radioactive materials and facilities from theft, sabotage, and misuse. They also protect people and the environment from potential radiological incidents and solidify public confidence in and continued support for the use of these technologies and their peaceful applications.

Photo Credit: Lothar Wedekind / IAEA


A solid foundation exists upon which the application of nuclear energy and nuclear technology can be improved and expanded safely, securely, and sustainably to contribute meaningfully to attaining human security. When we focus on enhancing human security in all our peaceful nuclear endeavors, we are most likely to achieve global peace and security.


Ingrid Kirsten is a Senior Research Associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP) where she focuses on peaceful uses as it relates to nuclear security and the non-proliferation regime. Prior to joining the VCDNP Ingrid was a South African diplomat and worked as an agriculture policy researcher at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).