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Nuclear terrorism is still urgent risk, says UN atomic watchdog chief

16 March 2005 – While much progress has been made through international cooperation over the past three years to combat the risks of nuclear terrorism, vulnerabilities still exist and the issue has lost neither its relevance nor urgency, the head of the United Nations atomic watchdog agency said today.

"For those of us in the nuclear field, it has become obvious that our work to strengthen nuclear security is both vital and urgent – and that we must not wait for a 'watershed' nuclear security event to provide the needed security upgrades," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the opening session of a three-day conference in London.

"Ultimately, our success will only be as strong as our weakest link," he said, stressing the need for cooperation, assistance, regional and international networks, and the importance of learning from each other.

Noting that the terrorist attack against the United States in September 2001 had propelled the rapid and dramatic re-evaluation of the risks of terrorism in all its forms, he categorized four potential nuclear risks: theft of a nuclear weapon; acquisition of nuclear materials to build a device; malicious use of radioactive sources such as a "dirty bomb;" and radiological hazards from attacking or sabotaging a facility or transport vehicle.

"These risks are real and current, but they are not all the same," he told the IAEA's "International Conference on Nuclear Security: Global Directions for the Future," underscoring the importance of international cooperation.

"While the probability of a nuclear explosive device being acquired and used by terrorists is relatively small, it cannot be dismissed, and the consequences would be devastating," he said. "On the other hand, a dirty bomb would likely have far less impact in terms of human life, but the relative accessibility of radiological sources makes it more likely that such an event could occur."

The IAEA's security plan to guard against thefts of nuclear and other radioactive material and protect related facilities against malicious acts rests on the three pillars of prevention, detection and response.

The first requires effective physical protection of materials and of related nuclear facilities including strong state accounting systems. The IAEA has provided a range of advisory missions, training workshops and technical guidance documents.

The second seeks to ensure that systems are in place to help countries to identify, at an early stage, illicit activity and here, too, the IAEA has been assisting countries from many regions in training customs officials, installing better equipment at border crossings, and ensuring that information on trafficking incidents is shared effectively.

The third aims to strengthen programmes to ensure that the response to any illicit activity, including nuclear or radioactive terrorism, is prompt and well coordinated. To date, most such responses have involved helping governments with the recovery of radioactive sources that have been stolen or lost.

Since September 2001, working in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, the IAEA has conducted more than 125 security advisory and evaluation missions, and convened over 100 training courses, workshops and seminars.

The agency's illicit trafficking database shows over 650 confirmed incidents of trafficking in nuclear or other radioactive material since 1993. Last year, nearly 100 such incidents occurred, 11 of which involved nuclear material.