Experts warn of disastrous consequences if nuclear materials fall into wrong hands

If nuclear materials fall into the hands of terrorists, the consequences would be disastrous, said Deepti Choubey, senior director of nuclear and bio-security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington.

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THE HAGUE // More countries should work towards properly securing nuclear material and radioactive sources because of the evolving threat of nuclear terrorism, experts at the Nuclear Security Summit said on Monday.

The hope, they said, was that this year’s summit would encourage more countries to get on board. Should such potentially dangerous materials fall into the hands of terrorists, the consequences would be disastrous, they added.

“There are 2,000 metric tonnes of weapons-usable nuclear material that is highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium,” said Deepti Choubey, senior director of nuclear and bio-security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington.

“These are the materials that a terrorist would use to make a kind of bomb that you would use for nuclear terrorism attacks and they are currently spread across hundreds of sites in 25 countries around the world.”

Ms Choubey was speaking on the sidelines of the summit’s opening day in The Hague, on Monday.

The summit does not focus so much on nuclear weapons as it does on efforts to reduce and secure nuclear material stockpiles.

Bart Dal, adviser for nuclear security and safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said terrorism had increased since September 2011 – meaning the whole nuclear world has to improve security. “Imagine what the effect would be if they [terrorists] succeeded,” he said. “The consequences are so large that we have to take this into account. If you expose a nuclear weapon in one city or more, that would change our lives forever.”

Cause for concern, said Jonathan Herbach, a research fellow in nuclear security and arms control law at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, was the theft or loss of nuclear materials, some of which were sometimes never recovered. “These materials aren’t going away and more states are interested in developing them,” said Mr Herbach.

“They’re used in many countries and actors that want to cause mass destruction or casualties are also not going away so when you put these two together, that to me is an equation that adds up to an extreme immediate threat.”

Mr Herbach said hundreds of incidents of material loss, from around the world, were reported every year. “Actors are trying to traffic these materials and, in certain cases, we should be worried.

“It’s not always that they have been stolen but there are, each year, examples of materials that are gone through sting operations, discovered to have been acquired by non-state actors. Sometimes –often – not all material is recovered.”

Therefore, said Mr Herbach, there was still a need to strengthen nuclear security.

“That’s where legally-binding documents are important,” he said. “They establish rules for which states can be held accountable and they provide sustained cooperation that will be very necessary going forward.”

And as countries looked to different avenues for energy in the wake of global warming, said Mr Dal, needs were also on the rise.

"So we want to be sure that something like Fukushima, an incident from natural causes, doesn't happen because of malicious purposes. What we're trying to do is going into the direction of standards that the whole world would have moral obligations."

Countries were urged to look beyond 2016 for security because of the threat of terrorism.

“This is an issue where all countries can agree on,” said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington. “We know it needs to be done, to secure the material and improve communications on the global system.”

Progress had been made in minimising and securing materials. By the time of the summit, there were 25 countries in possession of these materials, down from 39 in 2009. Japan also announced on Monday that it would return 331 kilograms of weapons-usable nuclear material to the US. However, Mr Pomper said it was a global effort that needed global cooperation.

“We want to transform this into a legal mechanism to make sure these last beyond 2016 and we don’t forget about the issue when leaders go home,” he said.