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Monday, December 25, 2006

Nuclear traffic doubles since '90s

By Richard Willing, USA TODAY
Annual incidents of trafficking and mishandling of nuclear and other radioactive material reported to U.S. intelligence officials have more than doubled since the early 1990s, says the director of domestic nuclear detection at the Department of Homeland Security.

Also up: scams in which fake or non-existent nuclear or radioactive material is offered for sale, often online, says Vayl Oxford, nuclear detection director at the department.

"We sense that people have recognized the value of nuclear material as a useful way of making money," Oxford said. "Nuclear material is becoming a marketable commodity."

The incidents tracked by the department, based on its reporting and information from foreign diplomatic and intelligence sources, average about twice the number made public each year by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Oxford said reports of nuclear and radioactive materials trafficking have ranged from 200 to 250 a year since 2000, up from about 100 a year in the 1990s.

The reports include incidents in which material was stolen, offered for sale, lost or mishandled.

The IAEA, whose members self-report trafficking incidents on a voluntary basis, said there were 121 such incidents in 2004 and 103 last year. The agency, based in Vienna, reports only trafficking incidents that its members have confirmed and elected to make public. The Department of Homeland Security numbers include all known or suspected trafficking incidents identified by the United States and allied governments.

Reported incidents may be increasing, Oxford says, because since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, governments have become more diligent about policing material that could be used by terrorists to build a radioactive "dirty bomb" or similar device.

Most reported incidents occurred outside the USA. There are no reported incidents in which radioactive or nuclear material was successfully sold to a terror group, according to the IAEA.

Some of the incidents have involved enriched uranium or plutonium of the type that can be used to make a nuclear weapon. In June 2003, for instance, a smuggler was arrested trying to carry 170 grams of enriched uranium across a border in Sadahlo, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union.

Most incidents involved very small amounts of material that were mishandled by authorities and never intended to be sold, the IAEA said. In New Jersey last year, a package containing 3.3 grams of enriched helium was "accidentally disposed of," the IAEA reported.

Some experts are concerned that the increase in trafficking incidents makes it more likely terrorists could acquire nuclear material.

"We're only seeing the dysfunctional part of the market — the supplier who's dumb enough to try to sell it to the police," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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