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US-Russia takes action against loose nukes

January 10, 2005

Recently, a secret flight took off from the Czech Republic heading for Russia.

Until it touched down amid tight security, the details of the flight were kept highly classified for fear of terrorists intercepting the cargo - four specialized transport canisters containing just over 13 pounds of highly enriched uranium which could be used for nuclear weapons.

The flight marked a further step in an increasingly aggressive program to secure nuclear material by Russia and the US amid continuing fears that gaining nuclear material is a priority for al-Qaeda.

Two of the top officials involved in the US - Russian efforts, US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Director of the Russian Atomy Energy Agency Aleksandr Rumyantsev, met in London on January 4th.

Both officials acknowledged that they were accelerating their protection program and expanding the scope of co-operation between their two countries to try to ensure that no nuclear material could fall into the wrong hands.

"If terrorists somehow managed to get hold of fissile material then the consequences would be devastating," Mr Rumyantsev said.

By the end of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union held more the 27,000 nuclear weapons. There was great concern and fear that poorly secured nuclear weapons ("loose nukes")could by stolen by criminals or terrorists.

Major efforts have been undertaken jointly by the US and Russia to try to prevent this by destroying weapons and improving security at sites.

But while securing such weapons remains a priority, there is now increased concern that nuclear materials rather than a fully developed weapon might become the target for terrorists.

Al-Qaeda's desire to get hold of nuclear material is longstanding and was recognized by British intelligence at least as early as 1998, although some of Osama Bin Laden's early attempts to secure such material proved amateurish and unsuccessful.

However, recent reports suggest Osama Bin Laden's desire to get hold of some kind of nuclear material is undimmed, and concern will only have been heightened by news that in 2003, he sought and received approval from a Saudi cleric for the use of a nuclear weapon against the US.

However, most experts believe that a dirty bomb - involving the dispersal of radiological material by an explosion - is a far more plausible threat than the detonation of a nuclear warhead.

A dirty bomb requires far less technical know-how, the combination of a traditional bomb with whatever material terrorists can lay their hands on.

To counter this, the US and Russia are placing a growing emphasis on a "global clearout" that reaches beyond the two nations and beyond just nuclear weapons by covering things like nuclear fuel held at research reactors in third countries.

In addition to the Czech Republic, there have also been deals with Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Libya and Uzbekistan to return materials from reactors back to either the US or Russia where the technology was developed.

"The significance of this can't be overestimated," said Secretary Abraham

The task, though, is huge - more than 100 research reactors around the world run on weapons grade highly enriched uranium and the hope is to convert many of them to use lower enriched uranium fuel which is less dangerous.

America's Global Threat Reduction Initiative aims to remove or secure all high risk nuclear and radiological materials around the world but one of the biggest tasks is simply trying to make an inventory of what materials are out there.

The close co-operation between the US and Russia and between Mr. Abraham and Mr. Rumyantsev has achieved much, but for those worried about nuclear proliferation and terrorism, the biggest challenge may come not from Russia, but from countries which have recently sought or achieved nuclear capability.

These would include Pakistan, where some scientists are thought to have been in contact with al-Qaeda, and also North Korea, where there are long-standing concerns about the passing on of nuclear technology.

As more countries try to acquire nuclear weapons, the challenge to stop nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands is likely to grow more and more demanding.