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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
U.S., Russia, IAEA Initiate Plan To Secure Radioactive Material
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July/August 2002

By Alex Wagner

In a major effort to prevent terrorist acquisition of radioactive material, the United States, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed June 12 on a new initiative to locate and secure dangerous, unaccounted-for material in former Soviet states.

In a press release, the IAEA touted the agreement as “the first concerted international response to the threat posed by vulnerable radioactive sources” in former Soviet states.

These sources are a “widespread phenomenon” in these countries, the agency said, and could present an attractive target for terrorists seeking to build radiological weapons.

Colloquially known as “dirty bombs,” such weapons utilize conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material, causing contamination and widespread disruption. In mid-June, the FBI announced the apprehension of a U.S. citizen who allegedly conspired with the al Qaeda terrorist organization to explode such a device on U.S. soil. (U.S. Announces It Uncovered ‘Dirty Bomb’ Plot.)

The new initiative will establish a working group to “develop a coordinated and proactive strategy to locate, recover, secure, and recycle” sources of radioactive material in the former Soviet Union that remain outside official regulatory control, according to the IAEA. The agreement does not cover radioactive sources in Russia, which will be addressed by a separate U.S.-Russian bilateral agreement.

The working group’s plan envisions extensive Russian participation, which will involve developing an initial inventory of radiological sources and assessing their likely locations, according to IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. After an inventory is finalized, the agency, cooperating with other former Soviet states, will dispatch teams to find and recover the radioactive sources, Fleming said. After they are secure, Russia has indicated it might be willing to either store or dispose of them.

The IAEA has identified “radioactive sources used in industrial radiography, radiotherapy, industrial irradiators and thermo-electric generators as those that are the most significant from a safety and security standpoint” because of the large amounts of radioactive material they contain, the agency’s release said.
Fleming said that tracking down some of these sources is like “searching for a needle in a haystack.” But she emphasized that the agreement is an “absolutely vital, organized, and proactive” effort that is distinct from the agency’s past endeavors, which have been purely “reactionary.”

The working group has yet to convene, and no date has been set for its first meeting.

Washington and Moscow are also cooperating bilaterally to locate and secure radioactive sources in Russia. At a May 9 press conference in Washington with Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyanstev, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the two sides are establishing a joint taskforce to assess the threat of radioactive materials in Russia and to recommend appropriate responses. The U.S.-Russian taskforce is set to meet in mid-July.

An informed source speculated that a separate but parallel initiative had been set up for Russia because Moscow is reluctant to allow the IAEA to perform search and recovery operations on its territory.
But Jack Caravelli, assistant deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. representative to the July bilateral talks, noted that given the past successes of U.S.-Russian efforts to secure nuclear materials, there is “not any requirement for the IAEA’s presence.” He added that the two initiatives were mainly motivated by the events of September 11.

The Energy Department and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy will largely fund both programs’ implementation. The United States plans to allocate $20 million to the projects this year and anticipates spending an equal amount of money next year. The amount of Russian funding remains unclear.