Sustaining Nuclear Security Capacity Building: Role of Knowledge Centres and Universities

In this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, the robust impact of the peaceful applications of nuclear technology, including the use of radioactive materials, on socioeconomic development of many countries in the Asia-Pacific was duly recognised. The 2018 East Asia Summit Leaders’ statement on nuclear safety and security also acknowledged the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and technology in the region and their importance in medicine and healthcare, climate change mitigation, agriculture, scientific research, clean energy, environment and industry. Such regional recognitions accentuate the contributions of safe and secure deployment of nuclear technology to achieving at least nine of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region also recognises the need to enhance nuclear security capacity building efforts, including training and education, both at national and regional levels. Without stringent regulatory oversight on the use and handling of nuclear and radioactive materials, there are potential risks of these being accidentally leaked, stolen and used for malicious purposes, or released indiscriminately by non-state actors. While nuclear security is often understood to be about securing nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, it is also very much about the security of radioactive materials. As defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear security is “the prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities”.

Sustainable nuclear security education ensures the availability of experts who can provide the necessary competencies for effective national nuclear security oversight of nuclear and radioactive materials as well as establish and maintain an appropriate nuclear security regime in a State. The primary role of knowledge centres and nuclear security centres of excellence (COE) is to facilitate the development of human resources and the provision of technical and scientific support on several levels to ensure the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of nuclear security in a State.

A few ASEAN Member States such as Malaysia and Indonesia  have established their COEs, while the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are still considering or planning to establish their respective COEs. Meanwhile, beyond their national responsibilities, Northeast Asian COEs help develop the human resources and technical support services needed for a sustainable nuclear security regime in East Asia. For instance, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean COEs offer nuclear security capacity building assistance to nuclear-related agencies and COEs in Asian countries, including several ASEAN Member States.

Apart from COEs, knowledge centres such as universities and research institutions can also fill in the gaps in countries where there are no established COEs. For instance, RSIS has been collaborating with fellow members of the International Nuclear Security Education Network (INSEN) through its roundtables, workshops and information-sharing. In October 2019, RSIS will host an IAEA regional faculty development course on nuclear security, involving INSEN members.

Meanwhile, the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Chulalongkorn University, and Universitas Gadjah Mada have jointly set up this year a regional master’s degree course on nuclear safety and security, which can further deepen nuclear security education in ASEAN.

There should be greater synergy and collaboration among COEs and other knowledge centres in deepening security culture of excellence in the Asia-Pacific. Education is a powerful tool to raise awareness to educate students on nuclear security and train professionals, thereby strengthening nuclear security culture and practices at the national level.  As a first step, an institutionalised collaboration between  the COEs of Northeast Asia and ASEAN COEs  can be established given that East Asia is a region that will definitely need significant capacity building cooperation in the coming years.