Improving nuclear safety and security: lessons from the past

5th May 2016 By: Sane Dhlamini - Creamer Media Researcher and Writer

Improving nuclear safety and security: lessons from the past

In Africa and across the globe, 2016 marks significant anniversaries in the disarmament and non-proliferation sphere. These anniversaries reflect progress made and lessons learnt, but also gaps in efforts to enhance nuclear safety and security, and eliminate and curb the spread of nuclear weapons.

Seventy years ago, on 24 January, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted by consensus its very first resolution, Resolution 1, establishing a UN Security Council commission, tasked to make recommendations on how best to ‘control … atomic energy to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes,’ and eliminate ‘from national armaments … atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.’

Twenty years ago, on 11 April 1996, the African Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty opened for signature in Cairo, Egypt. Usually referred to as the Treaty of Pelindaba, it entered into force on 15 July 2009 after 28 African Union (AU) members deposited their instruments of ratification with the AU Commission.

This landmark framework agreement prohibits African states from producing nuclear weapons, and prevents nuclear weapons from being stationed and tested on the continent. It further forbids armed attacks on peaceful nuclear installations and bars the dumping of radiological waste.

States parties also commit to apply the highest standards of security and physical protection of nuclear material, facilities and equipment to prevent theft, sabotage and unauthorised handling and use. Overall, this will provide political and economic benefits and enhance the African continent’s collective security efforts.

How far have African states since progressed in enhancing regional and international nuclear safety and security?

As of 27 April this year, 53 of the 54 members of the AU have signed the Treaty of Pelindaba. Some 40 states (including the territory known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) have deposited their instruments of ratification or accession with the AU Commission.

Furthermore, some 37 African states are party to the 1980 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) which, like the more recent Nuclear Security Summit process, highlights the measures needed to prevent, detect and punish offenses relating to nuclear material.While these figures are promising, it must be noted that only 18 African states are party to the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM, which is due to enter into force on 8 May this year. The amendment expands co-operation between states to locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material; mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage; and prevent and combat related offences. This international treaty re-enforces, at the global level, the security commitments made under the Treaty of Pelindaba by African states.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, which occurred 30 years ago on 26 April 1986, and the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred five years ago on 11 March 2011, are both devastating reminders of the crucial need to also take nuclear safety issues seriously.

While the causes of these accidents were vastly different – they contain many lessons for Africa’s burgeoning nuclear science and technology industry. The continent cannot afford a nuclear disaster; whether intentionally or unintentionally caused, or through breaches in safety regulations. States must urgently invest in the physical protection of nuclear material and facilities and confront cyber security and illicit trafficking challenges to mitigate threats – while still harnessing the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear material.

On 4 November last year, the AU and South Africa signed a host country agreement to establish the headquarters of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE). The secretariat of AFCONE will be located in Pretoria, South Africa, and will be headed by an executive secretary.

This will further galvanise the work of AFCONE. Established in November 2010 by Article 12 of the Treaty of Pelindaba, it is responsible for ensuring that states parties comply with their disarmament and non-proliferation obligations, and for promoting ‘regional and sub-regional programmes for cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology.’

On 29 March, the chairperson of the AU Commission recommended to the 584th meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council that the Commission, in collaboration with regional economic communities, should undertake a study to evaluate the risk of weapons proliferation and terrorism related to weapons of mass destruction on the continent. It also recommended that gaps in security measures be identified, and that the level of preparedness to natural and human triggered chemical, biological and nuclear emergencies be assessed.

The post of executive secretary for AFCONE was only filled in 2015. The AU is showing increasing interest, however, in investigating the nexus between weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. This bodes well for strengthened co-operation among African states, as does the fact that the fourth conference of states parties to the Treaty of Pelindaba will be held in Addis Ababa in the second half of 2016.

Africa’s contribution to a comprehensive and effective global system is progressing well, given the variety of challenges. International and continental anniversaries serve as important milestones, from which lessons to improve nuclear safety and security can be drawn.