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Conference Pledges to Curb Dirty Bomb Danger

Christine Kucia

International leaders, meeting in Vienna March 10-13, called for “cradle-to-grave control” for materials that could be used to create a radioactive dispersal device, otherwise known as a “dirty bomb.” In particular, the conference urged stepped-up measures to protect the potentially lethal materials, particularly “orphan” sources that remain unprotected in countries without the means to monitor or secure the material.

The conference, co-sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Russia, and the United States, drew more than 700 people from more than 120 countries to tackle the issues surrounding the possession, monitoring, and transport of high-risk radiological material. U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called for the meeting in November 2002, stressing a need to “develop the international framework for dealing with the specific threat posed by dirty bombs.”

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, governments have become increasingly concerned that terrorists might construct a dirty bomb, which incorporates radioactive material in a conventional explosive bomb. Security for the material “has taken on a new urgency,” IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said March 11.

On March 11, Abraham announced a $3 million U.S. contribution to the IAEA’s new Radiological Security Partnership, a program that will help developing countries secure their abandoned radiological materials. This project will provide U.S. financial and technological support to the IAEA, similar to an IAEA-Russian-U.S. initiative agreed in June 2002 to secure radiological sources in the former Soviet Union. (See ACT, July/August 2002.) According to Abraham, “It is my hope that this model, which is working so well in the former Soviet Union, will become global in scale.”

Priorities for the partnership will include assisting member states with developing national programs to monitor and secure high-risk materials, locate and dispose of orphan radiological sources, and prevent illicit trafficking of the material by targeting key shipping hubs for monitoring and control efforts. An IAEA official, however, said he was unclear on the details of the program, and the Energy Department did not return calls asking for explanation.

The IAEA has long pushed for increased funding for measures to prevent theft or acquisition of nuclear materials for terrorist acts. In November 2001, ElBaradei outlined a plan to increase its annual nuclear security spending by $30-50 million, which the Board of Governors approved in June 2002. ElBaradei said that the IAEA would need another $20 million per year—on top of the current $12 million budget—for its Nuclear Security Fund in order to respond to crises involving radioactive materials.

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