Wide availability in recent decades of spent reactor fuel and other radioactive and radiological materials has prompted the United States to create a $450 million program to prevent its use by terrorists in “dirty bombs.”
In announcing the program Wednesday in Vienna, Austria, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the objective was to collect, secure and dispose of the dangerous materials from around the world.
“Where 100 years ago authorities had to worry about the anarchist placing a bomb in the downtown square, now we must worry about the terrorist who places that bomb in the square, but packed with radiological material,” Abraham said.
Abraham told the International Atomic Energy Agency the first priority was to bring back to the United States about 330 tons of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium by the end of 2005. More than 220 tons has been eliminated so far, he said, and all Russian spent fuel would be recovered by 2010.
The Associated Press on Tuesday obtained a copy of Abraham’s remarks prepared for the IAEA session in Vienna.
Several city blocks contaminated
A dirty bomb uses conventional explosives to spread radiation over several city blocks. It has no atomic chain reaction and requires no highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Both materials are normally kept under tight security, so they are difficult to obtain.
Instead, the radioactive component is of lower-grade isotopes, such as those used in medicine or research. If a dirty bomb were to be detonated, the radiation release probably would be small.
“It has become clear that an even more comprehensive and urgently focused effort is needed to respond to emerging and evolving threats,” Abraham said. “Moreover, we are prepared to spend the resources necessary to guarantee success.”
“But we will need more funds, and heightened international cooperation, to finish the job,” he said.
The program’s other goals are to:
- Relocate within a decade all U.S.-origin research reactor spent fuel from around the world.
- Convert civilian research reactors around the world that use highly enriched uranium to the use of low enriched uranium fuel instead.
- Identify other nuclear and radiological materials and related equipment not yet covered by current nonproliferation efforts.
Abraham said the new global program would reduce the proliferation threat by cutting off access to materials and equipment by “whatever the most appropriate circumstance may be, as quickly and expeditiously as possible.”
By handling problems that require attention anywhere in the world, he said, officials will ensure that nuclear and radiological materials and equipment “will not fall into the hands of those with evil intentions.”
Thousands of devices missing
Congressional investigators reported last year that devices containing radioactive material have been distributed worldwide and, in many cases, lost.
The General Accounting Office report said nearly 10 million devices that hold radioactive material exist in the United States and the 49 countries responding to a survey.
The GAO estimated that thousands of devices that have been lost, stolen or abandoned around the globe. Countries responding to the survey said 612 devices had been reported lost or stolen since 1995. Almost a third have not been recovered.
Most of those devices went missing from Russia, the GAO said, citing as a particular source of unease hundreds of electric generators spread across rural Russia that contain strontium-90.
The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates as many as 110 countries worldwide do not have adequate controls over radioactive devices that, if enough of them were obtained, could be used to build an explosive device that would spread radioactive material.