UN nuclear watchdog draws attention to possible terrorist scenarios

2 June 2004

Highlighting the battle to prevent nuclear weaponry from falling into the hands of terrorists, the United Nations atomic watchdog agency is drawing attention to the role it can play in reinforcing national efforts to detect smuggling of nuclear material and equipment that could be used in crude explosive devices and so-called dirty bombs.

In a paper titled "Promoting Nuclear Security: Possible Terrorist Scenarios," the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gives top priority to the theft of a nuclear weapon which, while highly unlikely, "represents the most serious threat with potentially devastating consequences." Responsibility for preventing theft rests with the states that possess nuclear weapons.

Another theft scenario involves terrorists acquiring sufficient quantities of plutonium or high-enriched uranium to construct a crude nuclear explosive device. "Although sophisticated equipment and expertise is required to manufacture and detonate a nuclear device, the possibility cannot be discounted," the IAEA says.

Terrorists could also obtain radioactive substances, primarily sealed radioactive sources widely used for medical purposes or in industry or stored as waste, and disperse the radioactivity. "One dramatic way would be if a sealed radioactive source was used to spike conventional explosives, in what is commonly referred to as a 'dirty bomb,'" the Agency notes.

Such a device "would certainly cause panic and economic damage, in addition to exposing the target population to radiation, the result of which would have both immediate and long-term effects."

Finally, terrorists could target any facility using nuclear or radioactive materials, be it nuclear power plants, fuel cycle facilities, research reactors, hospitals or industries, causing immediate dispersal of radioactivity, exposing the population to radiation and damaging both property and the environment.

The IAEA is working to promote nuclear security measures considered essential to forestalling these threats. Steps include the physical protection of nuclear materials and related facilities as well as the control of lost or "orphaned" radioactive material. In addition, the Agency is helping countries to detect any black-market activity through border patrols, training of customs officials, and the maintenance of a database on illicit trafficking.