Threat and Threat Perceptions in a New Nuclear Security Paradigm – Lars Van Dassen

This week the Conference of the Parties to the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (A/CPPNM), is currently taking place in Vienna (Austria). It marks just over five years after entry into force of the Amendment, a major milestone in the development of the international legal framework for nuclear security. 

The purpose of the Conference is to review the implementation of the CPPNM as amended and its adequacy as concerns the preamble, the whole of the operative part and the annexes in the light of the then prevailing situation.

WINS (World Institute of Nuclear Security) Executive Director, Lars Van Dassen, presented his speech at the panel during the session with Non-governmental Organizations on March, 29. Here is the text of his sparkling statement:

“I am honoured that WINS has been asked to speak about threat at this NGO panel. Threat as a concept and our perception of it – is essential within nuclear security. Threat defines our response, resolve, choices and robustness. The threat is what our community is there to counter. Nuclear security’s starting point has always been the threat: threat assessment, design basis threat, threat actors, threat vectors, external threat and insider threats. If there is no threat, then there is no need for nuclear security measures. 

However, this speech is not an inventory of the types of threats or evolving threat capabilities. I wish to address the topic of threat and threat perception at a higher level – namely how we perceive what is happening and whether we can address this. And I will do this by means of a couple of questions to you all so that we can define where we are.

Our understanding of threat has always been evolving. But the threat in nuclear security has changed more during the past five weeks than it has in the past five decades. That constitutes a problem. Because our reactions are exactly that – reactive. 

So where are we? President Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself”. To paraphrase his words for the current moment, I would say that “our biggest threat – is an inability to define and understand the true nature of threats as they are now unfolding”. Without a definition, we cannot react.  Without understanding, we cannot respond. Without a diagnosis, there can be no proper remedy. 

My first question is: are we seeing a paradigm shift in nuclear security? When one country goes to war against another and occupies two nuclear power plants; is willing to use guns and artillery near and on the site of nuclear installations; is willing to let its own and other soldiers walk on the contaminated grounds around Chornobyl –- then this is something completely unprecedented. It is simply beyond our usual frame of reference. When the authorised security and safety staff work under duress – then it causes unacceptable risks; the very risks that the ACPPNM and many other international legal frameworks in nuclear and security are there to reduce and impede.

The international nuclear security order preceded on the assumption that the threat in nuclear security were terrorists, thieves and other antagonists. Now, also a nation State is involved. A State with key powers and responsibilities within the United Nations. A nation State endowed with a special status under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a Nuclear Weapon State and a nation State with a permanent seat on the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council. When a star turns into a blackhole, there is a risk that it engulfs others. We must counter this menace.

But let us look at the issue of a change in paradigm. It is said that there have been three big paradigm shifts in nuclear security. 

The first paradigm shift came after the 1972 Olympics in Germany where the Palestinian terror group Black September murdered 11 Israeli athletes and one German policeman. The international community realised that terrorists would and could be targeting larger groups of people and were prepared to do this abroad. At the IAEA, it influenced the establishment of the INFCIRC/225 standard document regarding nuclear security and then later the text of the CPPNM. 

The second paradigm shift was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-1992 and the smuggling of nuclear and other radioactive materials that ensued. States and international organisations responded steadfastly demonstrating the importance of nuclear security measures and international cooperation on these matters. Among other international initiatives was the establishment of the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database in 1995 and the Moscow Summit on Nuclear Safety and Security in 1996.

The third paradigm shift came after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001 by Al-Qaida on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. In this attack, 3,000 persons were killed by suicide attacks. In response to this, the text of the Amendment to the CPPNM was formulated, the IAEA established its Nuclear Security Plan and Nuclear Security Fund, further versions of INFCIRC/225 were established, Nuclear Security Summits were organised, and the Nuclear Security Series of IAEA nuclear security documents were established. 

This begs the question: Do the actions currently unfolding in Ukraine relate to existing paradigms and frameworks? Or are we moving onto something new? The answer is mixed, I think. But instead of answering, I will ask you the following.

Are we entering a new paradigm when it is a nation State that is doing what we thought only terrorists would do – attacking and occupying nuclear facilities? And should we worry – as is done in an article in the Argentinian newspaper Infobae – that States and terrorists could join hands, and with that, would be able to create hybrid nuclear threats on a larger scale than we are used to think of as nuclear security threats?

Are we beyond anything that can be called paradigm shift, when a State singlehandedly threatens an international order in nuclear security that has been developed over decades?

Over the past five decades, our responses to new threats have not always been perfect but nevertheless the major powers and a vast majority of States, industry organisations and many other good forces carried their weight in meticulously assuring progress: through conventions, guidelines, summits, codes of conduct, improved domestic legislation and regimes, practical work at facility levels, consensus and common mindsets. 

Today, I think it is more proper to ask whether we are in a landslide and thus far beyond a mere paradigm shift. A landslide as concerns the norm that “States do not do nuclear security threats to each other”. Here, the countermeasure is to get the shovels and wheelbarrows and start filling sandbags and do necessary backfilling and retrofitting. We will have to start with sandbags and put the soil back where it was. In addition, we need to think which grass and plants will make the landscape hold in the future, and we may need to put poles deep into the ground. 

Nuclear security is – more than ever before – international security, writ large. To make progress, the great return to civility, international law, human rights and respect for sovereignty is the answer. That is both difficult and easy to accomplish. It is difficult as we have recently moved far away from the benign conditions we expect for a secure use of the nuclear technologies. But it is easy as we have a great deal of the tools available to once more set things right.

A new round of nuclear security summits could bring the central States and organisations into a common mindset and strengthen the norm that “States do not become a nuclear security threat”. The use of international law against terrorism and war criminals can and should be used. Many other means may also be there, such as the day-to-day work at the level of regulators and the various nuclear industry facilities and organisations. Strengthening the awareness and professionalisation of the individuals in nuclear security remains under all circumstances an important activity.

NGOs should play a key role in these developments. New thinking, more practice and ingenuity have to be developed and partnerships should be developed by which scholars, state entities, international organisations and others create new responses. We have to learn from other areas where critical infrastructure is being protected. Maybe in such a manner, our reactions are not just reactive but also ahead of the development of threats. And if we are good, we can contribute to containing the erosion, and we can help stabilising the norms in nuclear security. All efforts will be sought after. And the larger the totality of our efforts, the better are the hopes for progress. The NGO discussion on what we can do begins NOW!

Democracy and transparency are also essential foundations for international security and for nuclear security. Democratic States do not wage wars against each other. The transparency inherent in democratic rule makes it easier to see which political ambitions are developing in a neighbouring country or another part of the world. An improvement in nuclear security conditions can be supported by more States simply being more democratic. This is a great promise not only for nuclear security but also for humanity. As said by the great German writer, Heinrich Mann, “Democracy is at the end of the day a recognition that we are all responsible for each other”. 

With international law, we contribute to this shared responsibility – so that all benefit.


With the abovementioned, I have so far refused to specifically refer to the Russian Federation and the institutions within it. But now I will make an exception and speak in more personal terms. I have during twenty years of my professional life worked on nuclear security improvement in Russia, Ukraine and other States in Central and Eastern Europe. I share this work effort with many good folks from States who wanted the best for Russia and a common deepened cooperation in nuclear security. 

I think of people that we have worked with in Russia – at a substantial number of facilities. They built nuclear security and careers and carried on with their work. Together with other international partners we accomplished a lot in nuclear security. The Russian colleagues taught us many things as well, such as the centrality of physical protection in nuclear security. Alexander in Murmansk, Ivan in Severodvinsk, Oleg and Vasily in Gremykha Guba, Ilona in Novouralsk, Boris and Sergey in Chepetsk, Natalia in Novovoronezh and Marina in Tomsk. One of them actually asked me in 2004 “how can we be so sure that States will not commit nuclear security crimes against each other?” That question echoes very heavily today.

It would be easy to think that all work done under the cooperation with Russian nuclear facilities was a waste of time. However, I am confident that the old colleagues in Russia are ready to form the new backbone when we have to start again. We all have to get ready to fix the landslide in many senses and places and let us work towards starting as early as possible. 

Women in Nuclear Ukraine and the security guards at the Khmelnitsky NPP in western Ukraine associate themselves with this speech. Thank you, Chair.”

It should be also noted that, according to Acting Head – The Chief State Inspector for Nuclear and Radiation Safety of Ukraine, Mr. Korikov, who addressed the Conference in video format, Russia’s full-scale military aggression against Ukraine shows that neither the Convention nor the IAEA recommendations provide for measures to ensure the physical protection of nuclear material under conditions of full-scale war.

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