Securing Nuclear Material

VIENNA – World leaders have devoted increasing attention in recent years to the risk of terrorists obtaining nuclear or other radioactive material. That’s the good news. But all of us need to act with greater urgency in translating good intentions into concrete action.

The risk of nuclear or other radioactive material falling into the wrong hands is all too real. There have been embarrassing security lapses at nuclear facilities, and sensitive material is often inadequately secured. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) records numerous cases of theft and other unauthorized activities involving nuclear and radioactive material every year. Most of these incidents are fairly minor, but some are more serious. Some material goes missing and is never found.

An incident in Moldova two years ago involving highly enriched uranium – which can be used in a nuclear weapon – illustrates both the scale of the threat and the possibility of effective counter-measures if countries take the problem seriously. Police seized a quantity of the substance from an individual who was attempting to sell it. The smugglers had tried to evade detection by building a shielded container – a worrisome level of sophistication on their part.

Fortunately, the Moldovan authorities had been working hard to improve their detection capabilities. They had also shared information with their counterparts in other countries. The uranium was seized in a sting operation. Arrests were made and several people received prison sentences.