|June 27, 2002||atimes.com|
New dangers from dirty bombs
By Sanjay Suri
LONDON - Radioactive material on the loose in many countries could be used to build dirty bombs that could spread terror and disease, says a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"The dirty bomb using radioactive material is not a nuclear bomb," IAEA director Mark Gwozdecky said at the launch of the report in London on Tuesday. Casualties would be caused by the conventional blast that would go with such a device. But such an explosion can "spread terror and contamination", he said.
There has been at least one attempt to use a dirty bomb, Gwozdecky said. Chechen rebels placed a container with cesium-137 in a park in Moscow in 1996, but fortunately the material was not dispersed.
The IAEA note said that dirty bombs were usually constructed from conventional explosives and radioactive material, the detonation of which would result in the dispersion of the radioactive material contained in the bomb.
The IAEA, the Vienna-based wing of the United Nations that monitors the use of nuclear and radioactive material, has launched new moves with governments to counter threats from this source. "It is a real concern, a real threat," he said. "It would be irresponsible not to take immediate action."
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 IAEA report says. The IAEA points out that while radioactive sources number in the millions, only a small percentage have enough strength to cause serious radiological harm. "It is these powerful sources that need to be focused on as a priority," it says in its report.
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 they contain large amounts of radioactive material, such as cobalt-60, strontium-90, cesium-137 and iridium-192.
"What is needed is a cradle-to-grave control of powerful radioactive sources to protect them against terrorism or theft," says IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei. "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."
The IAEA has launched a drive against "orphaned" radioactive sources - a term used by nuclear regulators to denote radioactive sources that are outside official regulatory control. Such sources are a widespread phenomenon in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, the IAEA report said. The report points out that even the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that US companies have lost track of nearly 1,500 radioactive sources within the country since 1996, and more than half have never been recovered. A European Union study estimated that every year up to about 70 sources are lost from regulatory control in the EU.
The IAEA, working in collaboration with the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the Ministry for Atomic Energy in Russia, has established a tripartite working group on "Securing and Managing Radioactive Sources". Officials representing the three sides agreed at a meeting on June 12 to develop "a coordinated and proactive strategy to locate, recover, secure and recycle orphan sources throughout the former Soviet Union".
Worldwide, the IAEA has tabulated more than 20,000 operators of significant radioactive sources: more than 10,000 radiotherapy units for medical care are in use; about 12,000 industrial sources for radiography are supplied annually; and about 300 irradiator facilities containing radioactive sources for industrial applications are in operation. In many countries, as the regulatory control of radioactive sources was weak, the inventories were not well known, the IAEA report says.
The report says that more than 100 countries may have no minimum infrastructure in place to control radiation sources properly. The IAEA is also concerned about more than 50 countries that are not IAEA member states as these are likely to have no regulatory infrastructure, the IAEA report said.
The IAEA has been active in lending its expertise to search out and secure orphaned sources in several countries. "In Kabul, Afghanistan, in late March, the IAEA was called in to secure a powerful cobalt source abandoned in a former hospital," the report said. "In Uganda a week later, the IAEA helped the government to secure a source that appeared to have been stolen for illicit resale."
The IAEA database includes 263 confirmed incidents since January 1993 that involved radioactive material other than nuclear material. "In most of these cases, the radioactive material was in the form of sealed radioactive sources, but some incidents with unsealed radioactive samples or radioactively contaminated materials such as contaminated scrap metal also have been reported to the illicit trafficking database and are included in the statistics," the report said. "Some states are more complete than others in reporting incidents, and open-source information suggests that the actual number of cases is significantly larger than the number confirmed to the IAEA."
Such material could be lethal in the hands of a suicide bomber, the IAEA report said. "The danger of handling powerful radioactive sources can no longer be seen as an effective deterrent, which dramatically changes previous assumptions," says ElBaradei.
The risk of accidents is the other major concern, besides terrorism, that could derive from sources that are "orphaned", the IAEA report says. Orphaned sources include sources that have never been subject to regulatory control, sources that have been subject to regulatory control but have since been abandoned, lost or misplaced, and sources that have been stolen or removed without proper authorization. Exactly how many orphaned sources there are in the world is not known, but the numbers are thought to be in the thousands, the IAEA report said.
The IAEA has set up voluntary standards to cut down risks from such sources, Gwozdecky said. "But we need individual states to implement them."
(Inter Press Service)
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