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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 66, September 2002

News Review

IAEA Emphasises 'Dirty Bomb' Risk as US Arrests Suspect

In Vienna on June 24, the IAEA issued an alarming statement on the "inadequate control of the world's radioactive sources". According to the Agency, the "radioactive materials needed to build a 'dirty bomb' can be found in almost any country in the world, and more than 100 countries may have inadequate control and monitoring programs necessary to prevent or even detect the theft of these materials". The statement contains the following definition and description of a 'dirty bomb':

"A dirty bomb contains radioactive material, but does not use that material to produce a nuclear explosion, as is the case with a nuclear weapon. Dirty bombs would be constructed of conventional explosives and radioactive material, the detonation of which would result in the dispersion of the radioactive material contained in the bomb. As with any explosion, people in the immediate vicinity could be killed or injured by the blast itself. The dispersed radioactive material could lead to exposure of people in the vicinity. It is difficult to predict the level of exposure of persons, as this would depend on many factors such as the physical and chemical form of the radioactive material, size and type of explosive and proximity of persons to the blast. In all likelihood, the most severe tangible impacts of a dirty bomb would be the social disruption associated with the evacuation, the subsequent clean up of contaminated property and the associated economic costs. One known case of an attempt to terrorize using radioactive material was the 1995 case when Chechen rebels placed a container with caesium-137 in a Moscow park. Fortunately, the material was not dispersed."

In terms of priorities for establishing adequate controls, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei noted: "What is needed is cradle-to-grave control of powerful radioactive sources to protect them against terrorism or theft. One of our priorities is to assist states in creating and strengthening national regulatory infrastructures to ensure that these radioactive sources are appropriately regulated and adequately secured at all times."

In terms of regions of concern, one area, according to the Agency, stands out above all others:

"'Orphaned' radioactive sources - a term utilized by nuclear regulators to denote radioactive sources that are outside official regulatory control - are a widespread phenomenon in the Newly Independent States (NIS) of the former USSR. ... In a significant recent development, the IAEA, working in collaboration with the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the Russian Federation's Ministry for Atomic Energy (MINATOM), have established a tripartite working group on 'Securing and Managing Radioactive Sources'. On June 12, officials representing the three sides agreed to develop a coordinated and proactive strategy to locate, recover, secure and recycle orphan sources throughout the Former Soviet Union. This agreement represents the first concerted international response to the threat posed by vulnerable radioactive sources in the NIS. Funding and expertise for this initiative will be provided by DOE and MINATOM."

Within the NIS, as the statement details, Georgia has recently been commanding urgent attention:

"In February 2002, a Georgian team supported by the IAEA successfully recovered two unshielded and unsecured radioactive strontium-90 sources that caused injuries to three men in December 2001. In June of this year, IAEA experts assisted Georgian officials in a search for additional strontium-90 sources that may be present in the area where the sources were recovered in February 2002. The IAEA has been working with Georgia since 1997 to improve the safety and security of radioactive sources in this country where over 280 radioactive sources have been recovered since the mid-90's. All of these sources have been placed in interim storage. 'The situation in Georgia may just be an indication of the serious safety and security implications that orphaned sources may have elsewhere in the world,' says Abel Gonzalez, IAEA Director of Radiation and Waste Safety."

The situation in Georgia is made graver by the apparently strong possibility that al Qaeda may be present and active in the region. As reported in the last issue, terrorist interest in acquiring material for radiological weapons was seemingly confirmed in dramatic fashion on June 10 with the announcement by US Attorney General John Ashcroft of the arrest of Jose Padilla, an American citizen now known as Abdullah al Muhajir, on suspicion of involvement in an al Qaeda plot to carry out a dirty bomb attack on US territory. Padilla was arrested at O'Hare international airport in Chicago on May 8, arriving on a flight from Pakistan. President Bush expressed delight at the news (June 10): "We have a man detained who is a threat to the country and thanks to the vigilance of our intelligence gathering and law enforcement he is now off the streets". By mid-August, however, no charges had been laid against Padilla, who despite his US citizenship is being held in US military custody as an enemy combatant. On August 14, an unnamed US law enforcement official told the Associated Press that the suspect appeared to be a "small fish", apparently with no ties to al Qaeda operatives in the US.

Reports: Transcript - Attorney General announces detention of terror suspect, Washington File, June 10; Search begins for missing radiation sources in Republic of Georgia, IAEA Press Release PR 2002/08, June 10; US nabs 'dirty bomb' suspect, Associated Press, June 10; Inadequate control of world's radioactive sources, IAEA Press Release PR 2002/09, June 24; UN - protect radioactive materials, Associated Press, June 25; Georgia to search for post-Soviet nuclear material, Reuters, July 2; Dirty bomb suspect said 'small fish', Associated Press, August 14.

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