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World: Vienna Symposium Tackling Threat Of Nuclear Terrorism

  • Tony Wesolowsky

The threat of terrorists using nuclear weapons has increased in the wake of the 11 September attacks on the United States. That's according to Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. He says the ruthlessness of those attacks, and the means by which they were carried out, alerted the world to the potential of nuclear terrorism. The topic will be discussed at a special one-day symposium at IAEA headquarters in Vienna tomorrow.

Prague, 1 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, pulls no punches when discussing the threat of nuclear terrorism.

El Baradei says the world has recently experienced two momentous nuclear shocks: the 1986 accident at Ukraine's Chornobyl nuclear power plant, and the IAEA's discovery of Iraq's secret nuclear weapons program. He warns that great efforts will be needed to prevent a third.

El Baradei says the willingness of terrorists to commit suicide to achieve what he calls their evil aims makes the nuclear terrorism threat 10 times greater than it was before 11 September.

Experts from around the world -- including Russia and the United States -- have been in Vienna this week (since 29 October) discussing nuclear safeguards, verification, and security. Tomorrow, a special one-day symposium sponsored by the IAEA will focus on the issue of combating nuclear terrorism. The IAEA is a UN-affiliated agency tasked with monitoring nuclear safety.

While the threat of nuclear terrorism would have seemed far-fetched a few months ago, officials are taking it more seriously now.

U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said yesterday that the 11 September attacks increased concern that extremists will use weapons of mass destruction -- possibly including nuclear weapons -- against the United States. His statement came a day after the U.S. government banned private planes from flying within some 20 kilometers of U.S. nuclear power plants.

According to David Kyd, a spokesman for the IAEA, the number of cases involving trafficking in nuclear material is alarming: "Since 1999, there have been over 150 cases -- confirmed cases -- of seizures of radioactive materials on the black market. Of those -- and that's somewhat reassuring, but not totally -- six have involved nuclear weapon-grade material. In other words, highly enriched uranium or plutonium."

The IAEA says radioactive materials could find their way into what could become terrorists' weapon of choice: the radiological bomb, otherwise known as the "dirty bomb."

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming explains: "The most probable scenario is fortunately the least devastating but still potentially awful -- and that would be using radioactive sources that are pretty much everywhere in hospitals and industry and pretty easy to access and [then] shrouding them in explosives and setting it off. This would cause probably limited deaths but certainly extreme panic and economic and environmental devastation."

In the short term, the IAEA estimates that at least $30 to $50 million will be needed each year to strengthen and expand its programs to meet this terrorist threat. Fleming says the IAEA will have to shift some of its focus.

"Our focus has been almost entirely on preventing states from diverting nuclear material to non-peaceful purposes, from preventing them from getting nuclear material and using it in a clandestine nuclear program. Now our focus will remain there because that's a continued worry but [it] will have to be beefed up in the area of actually protecting these facilities from thieves and terrorists."

Fleming says tomorrow's symposium should give experts the opportunity to discuss ways of combating nuclear terrorism. They, in turn, are expected to return to their home countries to meet with government officials in hopes of drawing up plans to safeguard not only nuclear stockpiles and materials, but facilities, as well.