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New Science Aimed at Fighting Atomic Terrorism

February 18, 2008

A new field called “nuclear forensics” is brining scientists together from across the globe with the goal of thwarting atomic terrorism.

Between 1993 and 2007 there were 1,340 cases reported of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials around the world, according to Anita Nilsson, director of the office of nuclear safety at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria.

“Nuclear terrorism is a global threat, not local or regional,” she said.

Speaking to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Nilsson said that the threats involve the spreading of radioactive materials, disruption of nuclear facilities, and explosions.

David Smith of the global security directorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said that since the threat has changed over time, the best way to combat modern nuclear terrorism is by controlling the supply of materials rather than using militaristic force. He noted that global cooperation is absolutely necessary in order for their goal to succeed.

The Nuclear Smuggling International Technical Working Group, consisting of about 30 countries, is involved with planning scientific techniques and processes for tracing radioactive materials.

The international efforts are aiding researchers in forming a database of known nuclear materials that have been produced, with the hope of being notified when stolen items are found.

Smith recalled an example of a criminal who was attempting to smuggle stolen uranium into Moldova before being stopped at a Bulgarian border crossing. After Bulgarian customs officials confiscated the uranium, it was sent to the U.S. where it was found to have been processed in 1993 in the former Soviet Union.

In another instance, a cube of material was apprehended by German authorities and was later determined to have been produced in the second half of 1943 in the World War II German atomic program, according to Klaus Luetzenkirchen of the Institute for Transuranium Elements in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Also, Luetzenkirchen said, a recovered nuclear fuel pellet was able to be traced back to a specific plant in Kazakhstan due to its surface roughness. He said that for a period of time following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the flow of nuclear materials in Europe became more rampant.

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