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Many countries have been slow to acknowledge the threat of nuclear terrorism, with experts saying a ‘dirty bomb’ could kill hundreds of thousands of people. A summit is being held in The Hague to address the danger.
Last April's bomb attack at the Boston marathon, which killed three people and left over 250 more injured, shook the US like no other incident since September 11, 2001.
But what if such a terrorist attack had involved a nuclear "dirty bomb"? "The consequences would be disastrous," said Giorgio Franceschini of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (HFSK). There would be lengthy evacuation and laborious decontamination measures around "ground zero"; the concerned area would be contaminated, the population nearby would feel they were at risk, citizens' rights would be restricted, and governments destabilized.
Is nuclear terrorism a real threat?
Preventing such a scenario is the idea behind the meeting of 53 heads of government, and representatives of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Interpol, and the EU on Monday (24.03.2014) in The Hague in The Netherlands. It's the third edition of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), set up by US President Barack Obama in 2009 with the goal of finding an action plan to stop nuclear terrorism around the globe. The first such summit took place in Washington, while the second happened two years later in the South Korean capital Seoul.
International efforts have made progress. To date, there hasn't been an attack with radioactive bombs, but nuclear terrorism is no longer just an abstract idea. "The terrorist group Al Qaeda and the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyio were close to obtaining the material for a nuclear bomb," said Franceschini. "They had looked into nuclear bomb ignition triggers, but in the end failed with their project." Chechen terrorists are also believed to have tried to use a radioactive weapon in Moscow.
Secure weapon grade material
Securing weapon grade radioactive material will therefore top the nuclear security summit agenda. According to recent official data, there are 1,390 tons of highly enriched uranium worldwide as well as 490 tons of plutonium, of which 260 tons are used for civil purposes, such as in hospitals.
"Some of this radioactive material is constantly in circulation. That's no longer just a national matter," said Michelle Cann of Washington-based think tank Partnership for Global Security. "We have to prevent this material from falling into the wrong hands."
An incident last December in Mexico illustrated this threat: a vehicle carrying medical equipment with radioactive cobalt-60 was hijacked and stolen. The material could have served to build a so-called "dirty bomb."
Spectacular robbery in Mexico: a vehicle carrying radioactive medical material was hijacked last year
"But terrorists could also obtain weapon grade nuclear material on the nuclear black market or steal highly enriched uranium from a research reactor," warned Franceschini, adding that in politically unstable nuclear powers, such as Pakistan, in particular, it would be easy for terrorist organizations to get their hands on such material.
Western military facilities may also have security deficiencies. According to recent US media reports, three peace activists, among them an 82-year-old nun, managed to break into a military facility in which tons of nuclear material were stored.
"The only way to prevent this is to reduce stocks of dangerous fissile material," said Michelle Cann. And that's possible, as countries such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine, and Vietnam have demonstrated. "They have given up or largely reduced their own stocks of weapon grade nuclear material," said the nuclear expert. "Now other states have to follow suit. That's our goal for the Hague."