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Terrorist ‘dirty bomb’ as easy as ever due to political upheaval, wider nuclear access

Published time: March 22, 2014 02:36
Edited time: March 22, 2014 04:54
The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flies in front of its headquarters in Vienna  (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flies in front of its headquarters in Vienna (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

The UN’s nuclear watchdog has warned about the continuing threat of terrorists acquiring a “dirty bomb” after revealing that 146 incidents of unauthorized contact with radioactive materials were reported last year.

"Even if they [stolen materials] can't be used for making a nuclear weapon, they can be used in radioactive dispersal devices, which is a concern," Denis Flory, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told Reuters ahead of a nuclear security summit next week.

Since beginning its Incident and Trafficking Database in 1993, the agency has recorded more than 2,400 illegal incidents. While most of them involved people accidentally coming upon dangerous materials – such as the scrap metal workers in India who came into contact with an old irradiator in 2010 – more than 400 are attempted crimes.

The figure from last year is broadly in line with the pattern for the past decade.

Flory said the most dangerous period was the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, where large stashes of radioactive materials were spread over a vast territory in a country that was transitioning from being a tightly-controlled state to a number of smaller entities.

But recent global instability in the Arab world means that risks of an uncontrolled spread of materials – and the demand for them – could be on the up again.

Notoriously, there are tonnes of uranium yellowcake stored in an ordinary warehouse near the city of Sabha in Libya’s unstable desert south – a situation that hasn’t been resolved in three years, despite the UN’s efforts.

As the use of nuclear technology widens and spreads to relatively poorly-secured areas, such as hospitals, the task for potential terrorists could become easier, according to the IAEA officials. The sophistication of technology available to terrorists is also possibly rising, though impossible to accurately monitor until they are caught.

There is still a lot of work to do,” summed up Flory, ahead of a worldwide nuclear summit that will begin in The Hague next week. World leaders from 53 countries are expected to call for more international action to help prevent radical groups from obtaining atomic bombs.