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Stopping a Dirty Bomb

VIENNA – Nuclear terrorism is, in the words of US President Barack Obama, “the gravest danger we face.” But while few would dispute this characterization, the world has unfinished business in minimizing the threat. Ten years after world leaders agreed to amend the landmark 1987 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) to make it harder for terrorists to obtain nuclear material, the new measures have yet to enter into force. The resulting vulnerability needs to be addressed urgently.

In July 2005, signatories to the CPPNM agreed to amend the Convention to address the risk of terrorism more effectively. The new measures that were introduced would make it more difficult for terrorists to cause a widespread release of radioactive material by attacking a nuclear power plant or detonating a radioactive dispersal device – commonly known as a dirty bomb.

But before the amendment can enter into force, two-thirds of the 152 signatories to the original convention must ratify it. While significant progress has been made – in July, the US, Italy, and Turkey did so – at least 14 more countries are needed.

The fact that there has never been a major terrorist attack involving nuclear or other radioactive material should not blind us to the severity of the threat. There is evidence that terrorist groups have tried to acquire the material needed to construct a crude nuclear explosive device, or a dirty bomb.