US study urges firmer guard against atom terrorism

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VIENNA, Sep 27 (Reuters) Some sites with bomb-grade uranium have no more security than a night watchman and chain-link fence, researchers said, warning against complacency in deterring nuclear theft and terrorism.

A report commissioned by the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) cited significant progress safeguarding and removing vulnerable nuclear stockpiles globally, but dangerous gaps persisted in Russia, Pakistan and elsewhere.

''Preventing nuclear terrorism must be a front-burner issue for leaders at the highest level of governments around the world every day. So far it is not,'' said NTI co-chairman Sam Nunn, a former US senator yesterday.

Authored by Matthew Bunn of Harvard University's Managing the Atom Project, the 188-page report calls for an urgent global campaign to minimise the risk of nuclear terrorism.

A UN nuclear terrorism treaty obliging states to punish those illegally possessing atomic devices or radioactive materials took force in July, but only two of the eight known or assumed nuclear arms powers, Russia and India, have ratified it.

The report cited ''troubling indications that the threat of nuclear theft and terrorism remains high'' in many regions.

In Russia last year, a senior general who was deputy head of law and order in Russia's closed nuclear cities was fired on suspicion of organising smuggling from those areas, it said.

AL QAEDA THREAT TO PAKISTANI STOCKPILE? Serving military officers in Pakistan collaborated with al Qaeda in two plots to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf, raising doubts about the reliability of officers charged with guarding the country's nuclear stockpile, said the report.

''Some 140 research reactors around the world still use highly enriched uranium (HEU) as their fuel, some with no more security than a night watchman and a chain-link fence.'' The US National Nuclear Security Administration said it shares the report's sense of urgency and has, since the September 11 attacks, stepped up efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.

''We have doubled our nonproliferation budget, and have dramatically accelerated our efforts worldwide to secure nuclear material and warheads in Russia, while converting research reactors and removing vulnerable nuclear material from civilian sites,'' spokesman Bryan Wilkes said.

''By next year, we will have completed our work securing nuclear material and warheads in Russia, two years ahead of schedule.'' US-funded security and accounting upgrades have been completed for some 55 per cent of nuclear bomb material storage sites in the former Soviet Union, and about half its warhead sites, by 2006, the report said.

Overhauls to meet International Atomic Energy Agency security guidelines had been done at 80 per cent of HEU-fueled research reactors worldwide. But only a few were secure enough to ward off ''demonstrated terrorist and criminal capabilities.'' Nuclear security improvements in non-Western regions outside the ex-Soviet Union were only in their infancy, it said.

''The essential ingredients of nuclear weapons exist in over 40 countries and there are scores of sites that are not secure enough ...,'' the report said.

''Remarkably, it appears that neither the US government nor the IAEA has a comprehensive, prioritised list assessing which facilities pose the most serious risks of nuclear theft.'' Among recommendations, the report called for a full-time White House official to draw up a strategic plan against the problem, multilateral exercises to pinpoint threats and briefings on them at political summit meetings, and removal of nuclear material from all vulnerable sites within four years.

Reuters KK VP0550

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