(The Telegraph) Terrorist groups have acquired a “container” to smuggle uranium undetected past the global network of sensors to prevent a dirty bomb, the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog has warned.
By Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent
7:46PM BST 17 Oct 2012
Speaking in London, Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said groups’ efforts to build a dirty bomb were becoming “more professional”.
It was particularly worrying, he said, that smuggling networks had hold of technology to evade sophisticated monitoring equipment designed to prevent proliferation of radioactive material.
“Terrorists having access to nuclear material is a real threat,” he said. “They have developed a particular container to put enriched uranium in as samples. The groups repeat [deliveries]to defeat the preventive measures. This is a real threat.”
Patricia Lewis, the head of the international security at Chatham House, said Mr Amano’s comments appeared to confirm suspicions that groups had got their hands on devices used by scientists to prevent radioactive emissions in transit.
“It is worrying because these containers can get past detectors,” she said. “We use these devices for security to block isotopes and you can certainly hide Highly Enriched Uranium in them. They can certainly get through the detectors.”
In May, a Moldovan court convicted three people for illegal trafficking of refined uranium that can be used in making nuclear weapons. The three were part of a five-member group that was said to be attempting exchange of a cylinder containing the radioactive material for cash. Intelligence services from several other countries, principally the US, Germany and Ukraine, were involved in the case.
Georgia’s government last year claimed it had broken up several smuggling syndicates. At least 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium would be needed in a dirty bomb but an estimated 700 tons is stored on Russian military bases.
A security expert who attended Mr Amano’s speech said the IAEA head was referring to incidents that had been detected but the agency had not been able to put a stop to smugglers.
“It’s not wholly new technology but it has been tightly held,” said the expert who asked not to be identified. “I imagine the IAEA has at least one incident where this box evaded detection but then was found in a search. But there must be other intelligence that there are more containers out there.”
Scientists have used lead-lined boxes for years to transport uranium. The industry has acknowledged for years that these boxes could be adapted by smugglers or fall into the wrong hands.
Mr Amano revealed that the agency had catalogued 2,200 attempts to steal or smuggle uranium since 1995.
Although detection equipment was cheap and effective, its fears over terrorist groups acquiring a dirty bomb had not abated.
The risk to modern cities was that a radioactive device built from uranium assembled by a bomb maker was considerable.
“This would not be a fully-fledged “nuclear bomb.” Mr Amano said. “But such an attack could lead to mass panic and cause considerable economic disruption.”
Miss Lewis said the number of incidents published by the IAEA did not represent the full scale of the threat.
“Not all of these were reported as missing. Is that because the organisation that lost the material didn’t know or didn’t want to say,” she said. “There is no real sense of how big this is. Is the figure fairly accurate or the tip of the iceberg. Nobody knows.”
Two decades after the fall of the Soviet empire left vast stores of radio active material vulnerable to sale or capture, Mr Amano called on the world to redouble efforts to prevent proliferation.
“We have to train people and we have to provide equipment,” Amano said. “Most of these (incidents) are very minor but some are very serious.”