Opening the International Conference on Nuclear Security 2024 (ICONS-2024) IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi recalled the profound technological advances have been made since the previous ICONS in 2020. Before launching the plenary session, he called a minute’s silence for President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran who was killed in a helicopter crash.

In a statement issued on the occasion of the conference he noted that assessing the impact of technological advances on nuclear security is a crucial task. “Artificial Intelligence, and unmanned vehicles pose both a threat to nuclear security and offer new tools with which to enhance it. In the nuclear field itself, small modular reactors promise new opportunities for applications such as desalination and power brought to remote communities via barge, but also require us to consider new security elements.”

ICONS has become a key event for the nuclear security community around the world. ICONS 2024: Shaping the Future has two main parts. A ministerial segment provides an opportunity for ministers to deliver messages on achievements and adopt a Ministerial Declaration. A scientific and technical programme comprises high level policy discussions on the overall themes central to nuclear security and parallel technical sessions on specialised scientific technical, legal and regulatory issues concerning nuclear security. ICONS 2024 is the fourth ICONS and follows the success of the most recent ICONS held in Vienna in February 2020. Previous ICONS were hosted by the IAEA in 2013 and 2016.

“The use of nuclear science and technology, often facilitated by the IAEA, has come on in leaps and bounds. Climate change and the drive for energy security are fuelling a desire for nuclear power,” he said. “At this past Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP28, world leaders – those whose states use nuclear power and those whose do not – for the first time in nearly 30 years of COP meetings agreed nuclear power must be part of the transition to net zero. More than 20 countries have signed a pledge towards tripling nuclear power capacity and at the IAEA’s Nuclear Energy Summit in March heads of state agreed on the urgent need for conducive financial conditions.”

Nuclear security is relevant throughout all the steps of the nuclear fuel cycle and is part of the social contract that underpins the existence and growth of nuclear power. Nuclear power programmes require national nuclear security threat assessments and “security by design”. Nurturing relevant research and a strong security culture are key, not only in countries with NPPs, he stressed.

The use of life-saving and life-affirming applications of nuclear science and technology is growing, from cancer patients gaining access to radiotherapy to farmers benefiting from new crop varieties developed with the help of irradiation. IAEA initiative such as Rays of Hope: Cancer care for all; Nutec Plastics; Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC); and Atoms4Food are key vehicles facilitating wider access.

All these opportunities to use nuclear and radioactive material depend on a strong and adaptive global nuclear security regime. For countries new to using nuclear and radioactive material, this means building up legal infrastructure, practices and culture that bolster nuclear security. Nationally and across borders, collaboration and laser-focused vigilance are key to preventing groups with malicious intent from using nuclear and radioactive material to cause panic and harm.

“The threats to nuclear and other radioactive material and associated facilities are real and varied. The international nuclear security threat landscape keeps evolving. Today, anyone can type a few words into a computer and generative AI can create images of nuclear Armageddon, meaning it is now possible to spread panic about radiation fallout without a nuclear device. Risk scenarios include theft of nuclear and other radioactive material for use in improvised devices and sabotage at nuclear installations or during transport of nuclear and radioactive material. The risk of cyber-attacks requires the implementation of computer security programmes by those who use nuclear power and those who don’t. Risks come from outsiders and from those within the fold who are disgruntled or have been corrupted.”

Nuclear security is the national responsibility of individual states, but it also benefits enormously from close collaboration and the enabling role of the IAEA. ICONS, which started in 2013, has been the place for ministers, policymakers, senior officials, and experts to gather to assesses current priorities, prepare for new challenges, and engage in scenario-based policy discussions. ICONS 2024, presided over by the co-presidents, HE Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia and HE Sungat Yessimkhanov, Vice-Minister of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, covers the themes of policy, law and regulation; technology and infrastructure for prevention, detection and response; capacity building; and cross-cutting areas, such as the interface between nuclear security and nuclear safety. “ICONS is the most important high-level international meeting on nuclear security. At this time of heightened tensions, it is imperative that there remains a unity of purpose and that nuclear security does not become a political football.”

The statement concluded: “At ICONS 2024 we are – as the name of the conference indicates – ‘shaping the future’, not only of nuclear security, but of the world our children will inherit. That is because nuclear security is about more than preventing nuclear terrorism. It is an enabler to providing, through nuclear science and technology, the clean energy; cutting-edge medicine; nutritious food and hope for a better tomorrow.”