IAEA: Missing radioactive material may pose dirty bomb threat

IAEA experts say that small stolen quantities of radioactive material could be used by terrorists to make dirty bomb

Denis Flory, deputy director general and head of the department of nuclear safety and security of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in 2011.
Ronald Zak/AP Photo

About 140 cases of missing or unauthorized use of nuclear and radioactive material were reported to the United Nations atomic agency in 2013, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — a stark reminder of the challenges facing world leaders when they gather at a nuclear security summit next week.

Any loss or theft of highly enriched uranium, plutonium or different types of radioactive sources is potentially serious, as Al-Qaeda-style militants could try to use them to make a crude nuclear device or a so-called dirty bomb, experts say. 

Denis Flory, deputy director general of the IAEA, said most of the reported incidents concerned small quantities of radioactive material.

But, "even if they can't be used for making a nuclear weapon, they can be used in radioactive dispersal devices, which is a concern," Flory told Reuters in an interview.

In a dirty bomb, conventional explosives are used to disperse radiation from a radioactive source, which can be found in hospitals, factories or other places that may not be very well protected, according to analysts.

Leaders from 53 countries — including U.S. President Barack Obama — will meet next week at the Hague Nuclear Security Summit, where they are expected to call for more international action to help prevent radical groups from obtaining atomic bombs. 

They will say that much headway has been made in reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism but also make clear that more must be done to ensure that dangerous substances don't fall into the wrong hands.

The Dutch hosts say the aim is a summit communique "containing clear agreements" to prevent nuclear terrorism by reducing stockpiles of hazardous nuclear material, better securing such stocks and intensifying international cooperation.

Flory said member states had reported nearly 2,500 cases to the IAEA's Incident and Trafficking Database since it was set up two decades ago. More than 120 countries take part in this information exchange project, covering theft, sabotage, unauthorized access and illegal transfers.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon will also meet leaders attending the two-day summit in The Hague. Among those expected are leaders of the seven major industrialized nations and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Nuclear security pact delayed

In 2012, 160 incidents were reported to the IAEA, of which 17 involved possession and related criminal activities, 24 theft or loss and 119 other unauthorized activities.

"It is continuing, which means there is still a lot of work to do to have that really decrease," said Flory, referring to statistics. However, there are also "more and more countries which declare incidents. The number of incidents we don't know is probably decreasing."

Because radioactive material is less hard to find and the device easier to make, experts say a dirty bomb is a more likely threat than a deadly atom bomb.

One of the biggest challenges ahead is to finally bring into force a 2005 amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, Flory said.

There are still 27 countries — including the United States — which need to ratify the amendment, which expands the coverage from only the protection of nuclear material in international transport to also include domestic use, transport and storage.

"It is extremely important because this amendment brings a lot of strengthening in the field of nuclear security," said Flory.

Matthew Bunn, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said this month that a U.S. failure so far to ratify the amended convention "has made it far harder" for Washington to pressure others to do so.

"The problem appears to be a combination of lack of sustained high-level attention by both the administration and Congress and disputes over unrelated issues," said Bunn.

Dirty bomb scenario

In the run up to Monday's summit, researchers in the Netherlands demonstrated techniques that could be used to prevent or respond to a terrorist attack with a dirty bomb.

The key items, according to Hague Security Delta director Rob de Wijk, are the need for governments to know what resources are available and for nuclear scientists to collaborate with criminal investigators.

In a demonstration Thursday, experts from the Netherlands' Forensic Institute ran through the scenario of an attack in Rotterdam, Europe's largest port. Technology on display included fixed scanners capable of detecting radioactive material inside shipping containers on the back of moving trucks and a portable scanner to analyze hazardous material at a suspected crime scene.

Wire services

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