Risk of nuclear terror attack now "far more likely"

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The Independent Online

A nuclear attack by terrorists is "far more likely" now than it was before the September 11 outrage, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned today.

It would most probably come in the form of radioactive contamination, or the targeting of nuclear facilities to cause a Chernobyl–style disaster, said IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei.

Although the chances of terrorists having the resources and technical ability to build a nuclear bomb were remote, the possibility could not be ruled out, he said.

The IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog agency based in Vienna, carries out verification inspections and sets world safety and security standards.

Mr ElBaradei said: "The willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their lives to achieve their evil aims creates a new dimension in the fight against terrorism.

"We are not just dealing with the possibility of governments diverting nuclear materials into clandestine weapons programmes. 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."

In the short term, the IAEA would need at least an extra 30–50 million dollars (£21–£36 million) a year to strengthen and expand its programmes to meet the terrorist threat.

The warning came as experts from around the world met at the IAEA in Vienna to discuss nuclear terrorism.

Mr ElBaradei said radiation knew no frontiers, and nations had to recognise that the safety and security of nuclear material was a global concern.

Countries had to demonstrate, not only to their own citizens but to their neighbours and the world, that their security systems were strong.

Reports that some terrorist groups, particularly Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network, had attempted to acquire nuclear material was a "cause of great concern".

According to IAEA figures, there have been 175 cases of trafficking in nuclear material and 201 cases of trafficking in medical and industrial radioactive sources since 1993.

Only 18 of these involved small amounts of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the material needed to produce a nuclear bomb.

Experts believe the quantities involved to be insufficient to construct an explosive nuclear device. However, Mr ElBaradei added: "Any such materials in illicit commerce and conceivably accessible to terrorist groups is deeply troubling."