05 November 2001
Text: IAEA on Threat of Nuclear Terrorism
(September 11 attacks make potential of nuclear terrorism more likely)
The head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says
the ruthlessness of the September 11 attacks against the United States
shows the potential for terrorist targetting of nuclear facilities,
nuclear material and radioactive sources worldwide.
According to a November 1 press release, IAEA Director General Mohamed
ElBaradei said that the willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their
lives to achieve their aims creates a new dimension in the fight
"We are not just dealing with the possibility of governments diverting
nuclear materials into clandestine weapons programs," he said. "Now we
have been alerted to the potential of terrorists targeting nuclear
facilities or using radioactive sources to incite panic, contaminate
property, and even cause injury or death among civilian populations."
ElBaradei released the statement as experts from around the world met
at an international symposium on nuclear safeguards at IAEA
Headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
Although terrorists have never used a nuclear weapon, ElBaradei said
reports that some terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda, have
attempted to acquire nuclear material is a cause of great concern.
The IAEA said that there have been about 375 cases of nuclear
smuggling over the past decade, but none have involved anything close
to enough fissionable material to construct a nuclear weapon.
"However, any such materials being in illicit commerce and conceivably
accessible to terrorist groups is deeply troubling," ElBaradei said.
He said that while the level of security at nuclear facilities is
generally considered to be very high, security of medical and
industrial radiation sources is disturbingly weak in some countries.
At the same time, IAEA experts evaluating the risks of nuclear
terrorism point out that the potential damage of an intentional crash
of a large, fully fuelled jetliner into a nuclear reactor or other
nuclear facilities is still being analyzed.
To prevent a terrorist nuclear attack, IAEA is proposing a number of
initiatives, including strengthening border monitoring and bolstering
the capabilities of the IAEA Emergency Response Center to react to
radiological emergencies following a terrorist attack. The agency
estimates that at least $30-$50 million each year will be needed in
the short term to strengthen and expand its programs to meet terrorist
ElBaradei also called on countries to actively reinforce nuclear
safeguards, expand systems for combating smuggling of nuclear material
and upgrade safety and security services.
Following is the text of the IAEA press release:
United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency
November 1, 2001
Calculating the New Global Nuclear Terrorism Threat
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that
the ruthlessness of the 11 September attacks has alerted the world to
the potential of nuclear terrorism - making it "far more likely" that
terrorists could target nuclear facilities, nuclear material and
radioactive sources worldwide.
Experts from around the world are meeting at the IAEA on 29 October to
2 November at an international symposium on nuclear safeguards,
verification, and security. A special session on 2 November focuses on
the issue of combating nuclear terrorism.
"The willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their lives to achieve
their evil aims creates a new dimension in the fight against
terrorism," says Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA Director General, whose
Agency sets world standards for nuclear safety and security. "We are
not just dealing with the possibility of governments diverting nuclear
materials into clandestine weapons programs. Now we have been alerted
to the potential of terrorists targeting nuclear facilities or using
radioactive sources to incite panic, contaminate property, and even
cause injury or death among civilian populations."
"An unconventional threat requires an unconventional response, and the
whole world needs to join together and take responsibility for the
security of nuclear material," says Mr. ElBaradei. "Because radiation
knows no frontiers, States need to recognize that safety and security
of nuclear material is a legitimate concern of all States. Countries
must demonstrate, not only to their own populations, but to their
neighbors and the world that strong security systems are in place. The
willingness of terrorists to commit suicide to achieve their evil aims
makes the nuclear terrorism threat far more likely than it was before
The IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog agency based in Vienna, helps
countries around the world to prevent, intercept and respond to
terrorist acts and other nuclear safety and security incidents. It has
the only international response system in place that would be in a
position to immediately react to assist countries in case of a
radiological emergency caused by a nuclear terrorist attack.
Although terrorists have never used a nuclear weapon, reports that
some terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda, have attempted to
acquire nuclear material is a cause of great concern.
According to the IAEA, since 1993, there have been 175 cases of
trafficking in nuclear material and 201 cases of trafficking in other
radioactive sources (medical, industrial). However, only 18 of these
cases have actually involved small amounts of highly enriched uranium
or plutonium, the material needed to produce a nuclear bomb. IAEA
experts judge the quantities involved to be insufficient to construct
a nuclear explosive device. "However, any such materials being in
illicit commerce and conceivably accessible to terrorist groups is
deeply troubling," says Mr. ElBaradei.
There has been a six-fold increase in nuclear material in peaceful
programs worldwide since 1970. According to IAEA figures, there are:
438 nuclear power reactors; 651 research reactors (of these 284 are in
operation) and 250 fuel cycle plants around the world, including
uranium mills and plants that convert, enrich store and reprocess
nuclear material. Additionally, tens of thousands of radiation sources
are used in medicine, industry, agriculture and research.
While the level of security at nuclear facilities is generally
considered to be very high, security of medical and industrial
radiation sources is disturbingly weak in some countries. "The
controls on nuclear material and radioactive sources are uneven," says
Mr. ElBaradei, "Security is as good as its weakest link and loose
nuclear material in any country is a potential threat to the entire
The Risks Involved
IAEA experts have evaluated the risks for nuclear terrorism in these
Nuclear facilities: IAEA experts believe the primary risks associated
with nuclear facilities would involve the theft or diversion of
nuclear material from the facility, or a physical attack or act of
sabotage designed to cause an uncontrolled release of radioactivity to
the surrounding environment.
From its inception, the nuclear industry has been keenly aware of the
dangers of nuclear material falling into terrorist's hands. At all
levels - operator, State and international - there is a complex
infrastructure at work to ensure nuclear material is accounted for;
safeguarded from diversion; and protected from theft and sabotage.
Billions of dollars per year are already being spent to protect and
defend nuclear facilities. Indeed, no other industry in the world has
such a sophisticated level of security. Nuclear facilities are
protected by well-trained security forces and are extremely robust,
designed to withstand, for example, earthquakes, tornado-force winds
and accidental crashes of small aircraft. Although it is not automatic
that any attack would result in a release of radioactivity, they are
however industrial facilities and as such are not hardened to
withstand acts of war.
The extent of damage that could be caused by the intentional crash of
a large, fully fuelled jetliner into a nuclear reactor containment or
other nuclear facilities is still a matter for analysis. Nuclear
facility designs vary from country to country, so studies will have to
take specific plant designs into account. "After September 11, we
realized that nuclear facilities - like dams, refineries, chemical
production facilities or skyscrapers - have their vulnerabilities,"
Mr. ElBaradei says. "There is no sanctuary anymore, no safety zone."
Countries around the world with nuclear facilities have heightened
security since the 11 September attacks, and are conducting urgent
analyses of their safety and security systems. The IAEA plans to
strengthen and tailor its existing safety and security services to
address the terrorism threat, by assisting countries in upgrading the
security and safety of their nuclear facilities.
Nuclear Material: According to IAEA experts, terrorists obtaining
nuclear weapons would be the most devastating scenario. "While we
cannot exclude the possibility that terrorists could get hold of some
nuclear material," says Mr. ElBaradei, "it is highly unlikely they
could use it to manufacture and successfully detonate a nuclear bomb.
Still, no scenario is impossible."
Beyond the difficulty for terrorists to obtain weapon usable material
- scientists estimate that 25 kg of highly enriched uranium or 8 kg of
plutonium would be needed make a bomb - actually producing a nuclear
weapon is far from a trivial exercise. Scientific expertise and access
to sophisticated equipment would be required. However, when the Cold
War ended, thousands of highly knowledgeable scientists and engineers
previously involved in the Soviet Union's weapons program were laid
off or found their incomes drastically reduced. Another legacy of the
Cold War is the disturbing reports, albeit unsubstantiated, of missing
Nuclear material has traditionally been subjected to extensive
national protection measures. To prevent theft of nuclear material,
nuclear facilities employ a range of protection measures, including
site security forces, site access control, employee screening and
co-ordination with local and national security authorities. In some
States, national security forces provide back-up to facility security.
The IAEA offers countries around the world assessments and advice on
physical security. It also maintains a database on incidents of
trafficking in nuclear material, although the IAEA considers the
information States provide on incidents and on follow-up to be
In non-nuclear weapon States, the IAEA carries out international
safeguards to verify that nuclear material has not been diverted to
non-peaceful uses. These safeguards, the verification tool entrusted
to the IAEA in the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear
Weapons (NPT), also play an important role in reducing the risk that
terrorists could acquire nuclear material without detection. But when
the NPT was drafted, nuclear terrorism was not perceived as a
However, safeguards require that a state account for all its nuclear
material and serve as a "burglar alarm" against a terrorist. A
well-designed system will also help to pinpoint the origin of missing
material, identify individuals who had access to it, and facilitate
recovery of the material.
The nuclear weapon programs in the five Nuclear Weapon States - China,
France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United
States, as well any that may exist in India, Pakistan and Israel, the
three non-NPT countries known to have nuclear programs - are not under
the purview of IAEA safeguards. "Although I understand there is a high
level of security for nuclear weapons," says Mr. ElBaradei, "I hope
that all of these countries are urgently reviewing the safety and
security of their nuclear weapons."
"There have been two nuclear shocks to the world already - the
Chernobyl accident and the IAEA's discovery of Iraq's clandestine
nuclear weapons program," says Mr. ElBaradei. "It will be vital we do
all in our power to prevent a third."
The IAEA plans to significantly expand its advisory services and help
States upgrade protection of their nuclear materials.
Radioactive Sources: IAEA experts are concerned that terrorists could
develop a crude radiological dispersal device using radioactive
sources commonly used in every day life. The number of radioactive
sources around the world is vast: those used in radiotherapy alone are
in the order of ten thousand. Many more are used in industry; for
example, to check for welding errors or cracks in buildings, pipelines
and structures. They are also used for the preservation of food. There
is a large number of unwanted radioactive sources, many of them
abandoned, others being simply "orphaned" of any regulatory control.
Such a weapon, sometimes referred to as a "dirty bomb", could be made
by shrouding conventional explosives around a source containing
radioactive material, although handling the nuclear material could
well be deadly.
"Security of radioactive materials has traditionally been relatively
light," says Abel Gonzalez, the IAEA's Director of Radiation and Waste
Safety. "There are few security precautions on radiotherapy equipment
and a large source could be removed quite easily, especially if those
involved have no regard for their own health. Moreover, in many
countries, the regulatory oversight of radiation sources is weak. As a
result, an undetermined number of radioactive sources has become
orphaned of regulatory control and their location is unknown."
"Certainly, the effects of a dirty bomb would not be devastating in
terms of human life," says Mr. Gonzalez. "But contamination in even
small quantities could have major psychological and economic effects."
The accidental contamination of Goi‚nia, a major city in Brazil, with
a medical radiation source exemplifies the potential for a terrorist
group to wreak havoc on an urban center. In September 1987, scrap
scavengers broke into an abandoned radiological clinic and stole a
highly radioactive caesium 137 source and moved it to a junkyard for
sale as scrap. Workers broke open the encasement and cut up the
20-gram capsule of caesium 137 into pieces. The valuable-looking scrap
was then distributed to friends and family of workers around the city.
Fourteen people were overexposed, and 249 contaminated. Four
subsequently died. More than 110,000 people had to be continuously
monitored. To decontaminate the area, 125,000 drums and 1470 boxes
were filled with contaminated clothing, furniture, dirt and other
materials; 85 houses had to be destroyed.
"We are dealing with a totally new equation since September 11," Mr.
Gonzalez said. "These terrorists demonstrated before our eyes their
willingness to give up their lives. The deadliness of handling
intensely radioactive material can no longer be seen as an effective
The IAEA is proposing a number of new initiatives, including
strengthening border monitoring, helping States search for and dispose
of orphan sources and strengthening the capabilities of the IAEA
Emergency Response Center to react to radiological emergencies
following a terrorist attack.
"September 11 presented us with a clear and present danger and a
global threat that requires global action," says Mohamed ElBaradei.
"Many of our programs go to the heart of combating nuclear terrorism,
but we now have to actively reinforce safeguards, expand our systems
for combating smuggling in nuclear material and upgrade our safety and
"At a minimum," Mr. ElBaradei says, "national assessments of security
infrastructure for all types of nuclear and radioactive material
should be required. Countries will have something to gain from
allowing international assessments to demonstrate to the world that
they are keeping their nuclear material secure."
In the short term, the IAEA estimates that at least $30-$50 million
annually will be needed to strengthen and expand its programs to meet
this terrorist threat.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), based in Vienna, has
132 Member States. It has 2200 employees and an annual budget of about
$330 Million. The IAEA, a UN agency, serves as the world's
intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical co-operation in
peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It is also the international
inspectorate for the application of nuclear verification measures to
ensure that nuclear programs are peaceful.
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)