International researchers at Stanford University have compiled what they say is the world?s most complete database of lost, stolen and misplaced nuclear material. This database reveals that we live in a world that is filled with weapons-grade uranium and plutonium that cannot be accounted for.
The Stanford program is called the Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources and is intended to help governments and international agencies track down lost nuclear material worldwide. Right now, many governments have national tracking programs but fail to share their information with other countries.
?It blows the mind, the lack of information,? says George Bunn, an arms control negotiator who helped compile the database. ?What we?re trying to say is, ?What are the facts???
?It truly is frightening,? says Lyudmila Zaitseva, a visiting fellow at Stanford University?s Institute for International Studies. ?I think this is the tip of the iceberg.?
U.S. senators recently held a hearing in Washington to assess the threat of ?dirty bombs,? which are bombs that contain radioactive material but are set off by conventional explosives. Terrorists who used this type of bomb would most likely buy black market nuclear material that has been stolen or misplaced.
Zaitseva says that, over the past 10 years, at least 88 pounds of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium was stolen from poorly protected nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union. While most of this material has been found, at least 4.4 pounds of highly enriched uranium stolen from a reactor in Georgia remains missing.
Other thefts include several fuel rods that disappeared from a research reactor in the Congo in the mid-1990s. While one of these fuel rods later resurfaced in Italy, reportedly in the hands of the Mafia, the other has not been found.
Michael Levi, of the Federation of American Scientists, the oldest U.S. arms control group, says, ?This is a smart step. Knowing what?s out there is the first step to bringing it back in.? ?We cannot supply the means to improve the situation,? says Friedrich Steinhausler, who headed up the Stanford group. ?We?re pinpointing weaknesses and loopholes and saying, ?Do something about it.??
?We haven?t found a single occasion in which the actual end users have been caught,? says Zaitseva. ?We can only guess by the routes where the material is going. We can?t say for sure if it is Iraq, Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda or Hezbollah. We can only make assumptions.?
She adds, ?It?s just not protected. This is hot stuff. If you steal 20 kilograms of that material, you can build a nuclear weapon.?
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