Interview With Khammar Mrabit, Nuclear Security Director, IAEA

“Safety and security are areas that are works-in-progress,” said Khammar Mrabit, Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Office of Nuclear Security, in this Global Observatory interview. “You are always learning. You are always improving the situation.”

Mr. Mrabit was answering a question about what he had learned from the disaster at Fukushima in Japan.  “So this is where we have always to learn, you can never say that ‘the system in this country is perfect, and therefore don’t worry, you don’t need to do anything.’”

Mr. Mrabit also spoke about the IAEA’s “illicit nuclear database,” which logs roughly 150 to 200 events annually. “But we cannot say whether the number is increasing because the number of countries are increasing—now we have 114—or because also the systems that are established in the countries, the detection systems, has improved, and therefore we detect more, and therefore we get more,” he said. “But roughly, it’s stabilized.”

Mr. Mrabit also discussed other challenges surrounding nuclear security, such as the role of non-state actors and rising concerns about large assembled crowds being possible targets.

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Warren Hoge (WH): Our guest today in the Global Observatory is Khammar Mrabit, the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Office of Nuclear Security. The office, based at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, provides advisory services to states for what the agency calls “Cradle to Grave Accountability of Nuclear and Radioactive Material” at a time when both the peaceful and malicious uses of such power are growing around the world. Khammar Mrabit joined the IAEA in 1986 and became Director of its Office of Nuclear Security in April of 2011.

Khammar, nuclear security is not—I just learned today in talking to you—a matter just for countries with nuclear energy programs, but also for all states, because of radioactive sources. Can you explain that? Why would a state that does not have a nuclear energy program need to be concerned about nuclear security?

Khammar Mrabit (KM): Let me start by the definition of nuclear security. For us, nuclear security is the prevention, the detection, and the response to theft, sabotage, illegal transfer, unauthorized access, and any other malicious acts that could involve either nuclear material—meaning uranium, highly enriched uranium, for example, or plutonium—but also other radioactive substances—meaning other radioactive sources—that are used for medical practices, for industrial practices, for research, agriculture, and so on.

So, this means that because all the countries have radioactive sources that are used for medical practices, in every country you would find that they are using nuclear medicine for diagnostic, etc. Each country you would find all sorts of departments using either cobalt sources for treating cancer, and so on. Therefore, radioactive sources are available in all the countries. And therefore, that material, if it’s not protected and well controlled, there is a risk it could be used for malicious acts such as a dirty bomb, that could be used for that. Therefore, this is why we are saying that nuclear security is a global issue that requires global response. And every state has the responsibility to establish such infrastructure. And the agency is working together with those countries to improve nuclear security infrastructure in those countries.

WH: I know one arena that the IAEA is concerned about is the arena where great crowds of people assemble. We have such a case right now in Europe, where in Poland and Ukraine the UEFA Euro (we call it soccer in this country) Football Cup is ongoing. Those two countries, Poland and Ukraine, have they asked for your assistance? Have you gone to those two places to try to secure them?

KM: Yes, the two countries, Poland and Ukraine, asked the agency to help them secure such events. And what we did with them is, from the beginning—and this is more than one year ago—we established a plan with them, a clear strategy, what should be done. And also, not only to establish a plan with them, but also to help them in training. We trained many of the professionals—the people coming from the regulatory body or from the law enforcement agencies. We shared with them information of the material that is out of regulatory control in the region, to know, “What is the situation?” And also we provided them with equipment for detection purposes so that they could themselves then check and secure such events because such events are big. They attract a lot of people, as you know very well, and could be a target for malicious or terrorist attacks.

And this is what we did also with other countries in the past, whether it’s in South Africa, whether in China, or in Greece, in many countries. And we have now requests for the next events in Latin America. In Brazil, they requested the agency establish such plans and implement these with them for the Olympics, and also for the World Cup, for start in 2013, ‘14, and ’16. We established such plans with Brazil. But other countries are coming to see us and requesting such assistance.

WH: At your office, you have something called the “illicit activity databank.” I want to ask you whether the numbers of those activities are on the rise. What is the current number, and what do you find when you investigate it? Is there a range of activities ranging from ones that are not dangerous at all to ones that are truly dangerous?

KM: Well certainly such illicit trafficking database has been established in 1995, when there were many cases of that time—cases in Eastern Europe—and we started exactly establishing and collecting information from our member states. And you’re right, the number of course is really high—2042 since 1945. It’s high, but at the same time, as I explained earlier, you have there all types of events, starting from nuclear material—whether it’s highly enriched uranium or plutonium. But at the same time, many, many—and we’re talking about the bulk—is related to radioactive material, meaning sources, either because they are often no longer under control, or even sometimes contaminated material that has been detected. And in the reports that asked whether this has been detected? This shows also that the system has been improved in such countries that could detect such cases and they report to the agency.

So again, the number is roughly now between 150 to 200 events annually, but the number countries also contributing is increasing. But we cannot say whether the number is increasing because the number of countries are increasing—now we have 114—or because also the systems that are established in the countries, the detection systems, has improved, and therefore we detect more, and therefore we get more. But roughly, it’s stabilized. And what is important for us is that when we get such information we analyze this, and we come back to the countries together with them to see what should be improved to improve nuclear security in those countries. And this is as part of continuous improvement of nuclear security in each country. This is what we are doing.

WH: Let me continue that thought. Are you getting more requests for assistance now than ever? And if you are, what does that tell you about countries’ interests in nuclear security? And also, finally, are you up to the demand? Is the demand outpacing how you can respond?

KM: Well the demand is increasing, and this demonstrates that member states are more aware of their role and responsibilities, and they are willing to cooperate with the agency to help them establish and maintain adequate nuclear security infrastructure. And what we are doing to meet those needs is to do it in a systematic and holistic way. For each country receiving our assistance, we sit together with them, and, based on our guidelines and standards, we assess the situation, we identify the gaps with them, and then we prepare such plan with the timing—who should do what and by when. And this is now the demand. We have more than 67 plans for 67 countries, and we are working on the rest, meaning around 42 to 50 plans, by next year, July 2013, before the conference we are organizing on nuclear security.

WH: We know that the numbers of request for your assistance are going up, and obviously, the kind of assistance is becoming more and more complicated and more and more demanding. Do you have what you need to meet the demands?

KM: Well, absolutely right, the demand is really higher, and as I said, we are establishing plans, integrated nuclear security plans, for all the countries receiving our assistance. The problem now is implementation. Do we have sufficient resources? The answer is no. And in addition to that, we are now living with 85 percent or more based on voluntary contributions, meaning no predictability—you have to wait. Second, when you get such resources, you have conditions attached to them, so you cannot do what you plan, but you have to adjust exactly to the resources you have and the conditions you have. And this is exactly becoming more and more difficult.

But at the same time, we have to realize that if we compare the situation to a few years ago, that we are getting more and more regular budgets, so meaning that countries themselves are recognizing that nuclear security is a global issue and requires global response, and therefore there should be more regular budget. So, I am saying there is more from the regular budget. But at the same time, we are far from what we need to meet exactly the increasing demands.

WH: You’ve been covering this subject now for a quarter of a century. And an awful lot has happened in the world that you’ve been covering during that time: the size of the weapons, the deliverability of the weapons, the growth of innocent but hazardous incidents. But the thing that I think may be the most dramatic difference over the last 15 to 20 years has been the creation of what we call the non-state actor. It’s no longer a government with nuclear radioactive materials. It’s somebody who is not a government but a person, and it may be a person with malicious intent. That obviously has posed a new challenge for your office. How have you responded to it?

KM: Yes, it’s a new challenge. But at the same time, if we deal with the root causes of such problems—if, in each country the nuclear material and radioactive sources are controlled, and that you know at any moment what is the status of such material, and what should be done—then you will avoid that other actors, non-state actors, would then find the material, steal the material, and use it for malicious purposes. So, the root cause for us is really to tackle the control, the protection of material, and associated facilities and activities. And this is done at the national level—at the governmental level. So this is why we are putting a lot of effort to have such plans with the countries that the control is there from cradle to grave.

And of course then, if such situation, if there are still deviations or gaps, then you have, as part of the system, the detection. So you detect what is going wrong, and in case that nuclear security events happen, then also work with the member-states to respond, or to mitigate such situations. So, our approach is again holistic and integrated: prevention, detection, and response.

WH: Let me ask you finally: You obviously learn from experience, and there are lots of experiences in this field. The most recent one, or at least the most recent truly dramatic one, was what happened in Fukushima in Japan.  Has the IAEA been deeply involved in the aftermath of that? Have you learned from that? Have you gotten the cooperation of the state of Japan that you would liked to have had for that? Have they viewed you as a service for states as you would wish? Or, do sometimes states, I don’t mean just Japan, do sometimes states think you’re being intrusive, and they don’t want you to come in?

KM: Again, safety and security are areas that are works-in-progress. You are always learning. You are always improving the situation. And this is where I mentioned that we have to be careful, when we will become complacent, so this is where we have always to learn you can never say that the system in this country is perfect and therefore “don’t worry, you don’t need to do anything.” So this is again continuous improvement.

So what’s happened, if you go back to Chernobyl, at that time we did not have the conventions of notification and assistance in case of an emergency nuclear or radiological emergency. But we learned from that, and therefore, in a very short period of time in the history of the IAEA, two conventions were really established and ratified. And then we started implementing this and there were a lot of improvements—exactly: the conventions on nuclear safety and the joint convention of radioactive waste and so on—that entered, also that were put together, and also that were implemented.

So, again, what’s happened recently: it’s an accident, and there were things that at that time that we did not predict would happen. For example, combined exactly events, and that things would happen not only in one nuclear power plant, but in several units in the same plant. So there are things that also our standards did not explicitly cover into a lot of details.

Therefore, we are learning. Also, Japan is learning, the international community is learning. And with the international community, the agency established such plan, and we are now implementing the nuclear safety action plan that covers many areas, including also emergency preparedness and response. And this is what we are really doing. But we haven’t learned all the lessons, though some of them, yes. But this will take time, and we are working very closely also with Japan and the International Community. And Japan has like other countries made what we call a stress test, which is like safety assessment of their situation based on international standards, and also they asked the agency to review such self assessment. And based on that they are also improving the situation.

Again, in short, safety and security are works-in-progress, and continuous improvement is a rule, is a principle. 

WH: Those are good words to live by. Khammar Mrabit, thank you very much for visiting us in the Global Observatory today.

KM: Well, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. Thanks a lot.