Concern grows over nuclear terror threat

Louis Charbonneau
National Post
November 1, 2001


Experts discuss security: Access to radioactive materials is ‘deeply troubling’


VIENNA (Reuters – The ruthlessness of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States shows that an act of nuclear terrorism is “far more likely” than previously thought, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said yesterday.

“The willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their lives to achieve their evil aims creates a new dimension in the fight against terrorism,” said Mohamed el-Baradei, the agency’s director-general.

Mr. el-Baradei, whose Vienna-based UN agency sets world standards for nuclear security, said the concern was no longer limited to the possibility of governments diverting nuclear materials into clandestine weapons programs.

“Now we have been alerted to the potential of terrorists targeting nuclear facilities or using radioactive sources to incite panic, contaminate property and even cause injury or death among civilian populations,” he said.

Experts from around the world have gathered at the IAEA’s headquarters this week to discuss security. In the light of the Sept. 11 attacks, they have added an extra session tomorrow devoted solely to the issue of nuclear terrorism.

Mr. el-Baradei’s remarks came as John Bolton, the U.S. Undersecretary of State, expressed similar fears in a meeting with journalists in Washington.

Answering questions at a breakfast with defence writers yesterday, Mr. Bolton predicted that if extremists possess weapons of mass destruction — the term encompasses nuclear, biological and chemical arms — they will use them.

“I’m concerned about weapons of mass destruction everywhere and my concern … has gone up since the [U.S.-led anti-terrorism] war began,” said the State Department’s top official dealing with arms control and international security affairs.

Sept. 11 proved that anybody willing to fly a jet airplane into the World Trade Center is “not going to be deterred by anything,” Mr. Bolton said. “Had these people had ballistic missile technology, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that they would have used it.”

Mr. Bolton refused to say if the United States knows whether Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of Islamic extremists have nuclear weapons.

Iran, Iraq and North Korea have long been key states of U.S. concern in regard to weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Some administration officials have urged including Iraq as a target in the war on terrorism but so far they have not prevailed.

Mr. Bolton sidestepped a direct answer on whether the United States believed Pakistan could lose control of its nuclear arsenal in any political instability that might result from its alliance with Washington in the anti-terrorism war.

Mr. el-Baradei called on countries around the world to take a careful inventory of the security risks at their nuclear power plants and to spend the money necessary to ensure they can prevent or withstand terrorist attacks.

Although there are no confirmed cases of terrorists using a nuclear weapon, Mr. el-Baradei said there was concern at reports some militant groups attempted to acquire nuclear material. Since 1993, there have been 175 known cases of trafficking in nuclear material and 201 cases of trafficking in other radioactive sources, such as those used for medical or industrial purposes.

But only 18 of these cases have actually involved highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the material needed to produce an atomic bomb. The IAEA believes the quantities involved to be insufficient to construct a nuclear explosive device.

“However, any such materials in illicit commerce and conceivably accessible to terrorist groups is deeply troubling,” Mr. el-Baradei said.

The IAEA estimates there has been a sixfold increase in nuclear material in peaceful programs worldwide since 1970.

There are 438 nuclear power reactors around the world and 651 research reactors, of which 284 are in operation.

While the level of security at nuclear facilities is generally considered to be very high, the IAEA believes the security of medical and industrial radiation sources is disturbingly weak in some countries.

“The controls on nuclear material and radioactive sources are uneven,” said Mr. el-Baradei. “Security is as good as its weakest link and loose nuclear material in any country is a potential threat to the entire world.”

While the IAEA is concerned about the threat of nuclear terrorism, Mr. el-Baradei said it would be easy to exaggerate the consequences of an attack on a nuclear plant.

“Nuclear facilities are perhaps the strongest, most robust industrial structures in the world,” he said.

He said the soundness of nuclear facilities had been demonstrated in U.S. experiments in which a military jet was slammed into a concrete and steel structure identical to that of a nuclear power plant. The structure held.

Nevertheless, security at all nuclear plants must be kept tight: “After Sept. 11, we realized that nuclear facilities — like dams, refineries, chemical production facilities or skyscrapers — have their vulnerabilities,” Mr. el-Baradei said.

“There is no sanctuary any more, no safety zone.”

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