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UN: Conference Looks At Security To Prevent Radioactive 'Dirty Bombs'

  • Don Hill

The United Nations' nuclear regulatory agency convenes a conference on 10 March in Vienna on the security of radioactive sources. An agency spokesperson says the three-day, high-level meeting will focus on the kinds of materials that could be used in what have become known as "dirty bombs." RFE/RL was told that these materials can be found virtually anywhere.

Prague, 7 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has some pretty big worries these days, such as whether some rogue state might buy or steal enough highly enriched uranium to make a leap forward in producing an atomic bomb.

But the IAEA, the UN's nuclear regulatory agency, also has some worries as small as radioactive isotopes in the laboratories of hospitals around the world and almost an infinite number of other materials from radioactive trash to X-ray machines.

IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming said that every country in the world houses such materials. "The radioactive sources that they are all using to benefit their societies in many ways could also at the same time pose serious safety dangers and, more importantly, security threats. They could get into the hands of terrorists," Fleming said.

So the IAEA has organized -- and the United States and Russia are sponsoring -- an International Conference on Security of Radioactive Sources from 10 to 12 March in Vienna. International organizations cooperating in the conference are the European Commission; EUROPOL, the European Police Office; Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization; and the World Customs Organization.

Fleming said the conference has two central functions. One is to raise awareness of the problem of preventing smuggling and trafficking in radioactive materials. The other, she said, is to offer reassurances to counter what she called the "hype" that may have overstated the dangers.

She added that given the quality and expertise of the 600 specialists from 110 countries expected to attend, the conference may also become a problem-solving event, generating practical countermeasures.

IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei is to open the event, and U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, president of the conference, is to make a keynote address. Both are scheduled to participate in a press conference on the second day with Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev.

Fleming said that countries and responsible international agencies in the last decade have increased their awareness of the dangers of uncontrolled radioactive materials. "And we've all been monitoring, actually, trafficking in radioactive materials since the breakup of the former Soviet Union and have noticed that this is a phenomenon. We have statistics in our database that include hundreds of cases of trafficking in radioactive materials," Fleming said.

She said nobody is sure whether trafficking is on the increase or whether the discovery and reporting of trafficking is improving.

Fleming also said the agency considers the gravest danger within its purview to be the potential for trafficking in nuclear materials, that is, of materials that could be used to make an illicit atomic bomb. "But that's not what this conference is about," Fleming added.

She said the conference is aimed at the less severe but more widespread dangers from radioactive materials whose improper storage or transportation could threaten public safety or whose acquisition by terrorists could constitute security threats. And those dangers, she said, are commonplace and everywhere. "Talking about radioactive sources, we wouldn't single out any country," she said. "It's a problem in Western Europe; it's a problem in the United States, as well; it's a problem in the developing world; it's a worldwide problem," Fleming said.

Scheduled for the closing session are chairmen summaries of sessions on such topics as "Interdicting Illicit Trafficking" and "Responding to Radiological Emergencies."

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