Terror exposes threat to Russian nuclear sites
16 Sep 2004 13:16:25 GMT
By Maria Golovnina
MOSCOW, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Recent bloody attacks in Russia like the Beslan school siege have highlighted the need to prevent the worst-case scenario of nuclear terrorism, Moscow's top atomic official says.
Russia, which has the second biggest nuclear arsenal after the United States and lies fifth in terms of civil nuclear power, is under pressure to act to guard high-risk atomic sites from attack after the collapse of Soviet rule left nuclear stockpiles under-protected.
International criticism of the way Russian security forces handled attacks in August and September -- two plane crashes, a suicide bombing in Moscow and the hostage-taking in Beslan in which over 300 people died -- exposed the threat even further.
"We've declared war on proliferation. Now we need to decide how to deal with this problem," Alexander Rumyantsev, head of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency, told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.
Russia's nuclear facilities, including 30 reactors and dozens of military sites with nuclear warheads, are attractive to extremists for their arms-grade nuclear material.
"All terrorist scenarios include attacks on atomic reactors," he said.
"In the wake of these gruesome acts of terror ... we must realise we need to step up efforts to prevent terrorists from getting nuclear materials. We need new approaches."
Although protected by Interior Ministry troops, many nuclear sites lie in remote corners of Siberia where security checks may not be as meticulous as in European Russia.
Russian industry experts say hundreds of "dirty bombs" -- conventional bombs laced with radioactive material which experts say would be the most likely weapon in nuclear terrorism -- could be made from the contents of small research reactors alone. These sites would be the least guarded.
Russia and other nuclear powers therefore need to alter legislation to make it easier to trace movements of nuclear stocks around the world, Rumyantsev said.
"Everything nuclear is obviously confidential, it concerns sovereignty ... But otherwise how are we then going to control all the sensitive materials? We need new legislation to allow this to happen," he said.
Rumyantsev said he would ask the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to cooperate more closely on anti-terrorism issues.
"I will tell them that these tragedies are yet more proof that no country can fight terrorism on its own," he said.
Highly enriched uranium and plutonium in reactors can be used to make a standard bomb. Spent fuel can produce a "dirty bomb" that needs little atomic content but can spread radiation after exploding.
Washington funds part of Russia's efforts to guard nuclear materials in a country where Soviet-era "atomic towns" struggle to survive amid shrinking state subsidies. Moscow says Western assistance is drying up.
Speaking to reporters earlier, Rumyantsev said a few dozen grams of weapons-grade uranium had been stolen from Russian sites over 25 years, but were recovered by security services.
About 100 kg (220 lb) of stolen raw uranium had never been found. Although raw uranium is no security hazard, Russia should try to prevent such theft in the future, he said.
"That's how things work and we have to understand that. People steal everything: timber, metals, money. And they also steel uranium," Rumyantsev said.