Watchdog warns of inadequate nuclear security

Louis Charbonneau
Planet Ark
December 3, 2001

VIENNA (REUTERS) – The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) said last week recent cases of illicit nuclear material trafficking showed the urgent need for better protection and control of radioactive material.

In a report to an IAEA board of governors session attended by U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, the United Nations’ atomic watchdog said that with nuclear material subject to national protection meausures, application of regulations remained uneven.

In recent years there have been 175 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, the report said.

“While only a few of these cases involved significant amounts of nuclear material, they demonstrate that security is still inadequate at certain locations and that there is an urgent need for improved protection and control,” it said.

Without mentioning any names, the IAEA report said there was lax security in some states, warning that an undetermined number of radioactive sources had become “orphaned” from regulatory control and their present location was unknown.

The robustness of nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities when faced with sabotage or acts of extreme violence varied from country to country and facility to facility.

“Agency assessments of facility design and operational measures can contribute to preventing and/or mitigating the impact of malicious acts,” the IAEA said, adding that it was revising standards on the construction of nuclear facilities.

The IAEA also plans to upgrade its international emergency response in the event of future radiological disasters. The agency has also offered to review national nuclear emergency response programmes to assess their effectiveness.

IDENTIFYING VULNERABLE LOCATIONS

“We need to urgently identify the most vulnerable locations and see they get the necessary security upgrades,” said IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei.

“In the long term, we need to ensure all countries have a stringent nuclear security framework in place – with high standards to abide by, state-of-the-art equipment, and people trained in security.”

The IAEA said past efforts had focused largely on diversion of nuclear material by states for non-peaceful purposes, with much less attention given to the activities of sub-national groups, such as Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

ElBaradei said the increased security would not come free-of-charge and called on countries to come up with the funds necessary to help the agency be an effective atomic watchdog.

“We have the solutions,” said ElBaradei. “Now governments have to come up with the resources.”

The IAEA report estimates that the proposed programme upgrades will cost $30-50 million, which would mean an initial 10-15 percent increase in the IAEA’s total available resources.

ElBaradei said the agency’s budget was underfunded by $40 million due to years of “zero real growth” of the IAEA budget. But funds needed to fight the nuclear terrorist threat would not stop at the $70-90 million the IAEA needed for its own budget.

The necessary global upgrades to meet the full range of possible threats would be in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars and would have to be carried out by individual states and through bilateral and multilateral assistance.

If states come up with the necessary funds, ElBaradei said the enhanced and additional activities proposed in his report should lead to a powerful national and international security framework for nuclear facilities and material.

“If we can establish international standards, effective security systems and oversight in all states, and better monitoring of borders, then we can provide a guarantee that the world will be a much safer place,” said ElBaradei.

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