World’s nuclear facilities vulnerable, warns UN agency

November 5, 2001 | Source: New Scientist

Nuclear plants are vulnerable to attacks by terrorists, according to a stark new warning by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The world’s 1300 nuclear facilities are not hardened to withstand “acts of war” like a deliberate hit by a large, fully-fuelled passenger jet, warns the IAEA’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei.

In the US on October 29, following intelligence reports received by the FBI, the air space around all US nuclear plants was closed to private planes by the Federal Aviation Authority. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission also issued a “threat advisory”.

The IAEA is also concerned about the risk of terrorists stealing a medical or industrial radiation source and using conventional explosives to make it into a “dirty bomb.” Although this may not cause large loss of life, it could provoke panic, contaminate property and have major economic consequences.

There are millions of such sources in the world, many thousands of which the IAEA regards as “orphaned” because they are no longer controlled by any regulatory agency. The sources are used widely in radiotherapy, to irradiate food and to check for cracks in buildings, and can contain large amounts of radioactive caesium 137 or cobalt 60.

The security of radiation sources in some countries is “disturbingly weak”, says the IAEA.