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Tim Blagg

Tim Blagg: Avoiding the nightmare

It’s a nightmare scenario — the kind you see in shoot-em-up movies — that officials all over the world are working to avoid.

A terrorist group gets its hands on highly radioactive material and uses it to build some kind of nuclear bomb or a device that scatters deadly dust in an urban area, poisoning its inhabitants.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that has continued to plague the imaginations of security forces for decades.

Since creating such material is a massive job that only a government can tackle, the most likely scenario is that the terrorists would steal it.

Where can this stuff be found, and how well is it protected?

Nuclear weapons are, despite what the movies might have you believe, heavily guarded and pretty safe.

Spent fuel from power and defense department reactors is guarded, and is also usually stored in the form of power rods in either wet or dry storage. It’s guarded, and even approaching this stuff will kill you in minutes, so it’s not easily stolen, piled into the back of a van and driven off into the night.

That leaves four main sources for the would-be attacker:

∎ medical radiation sources of the sort used for treating cancer.

∎ industrial radiation sources, used for a variety of applications, such as measuring thickness, detecting welding flaws and irradiating food.

∎ research reactor fuel, stored at universities and other facilities.

∎ leftover weapons stored in the Eastern Bloc countries ... relics of the Cold War

Medical and industrial sources are usually quite tiny, solid metal or ceramic and encased in some sort of shielding. They are not easily used in, say a dirty bomb and aren’t the type of material that could be used to build a nuclear bomb.

Research reactors typically use low-grade fuel, and there is an active international program to retrieve any highly radioactive fuel and store it safely or dispose of it. For example, in Mexico, the United States is working with Canada on plans to convert a research reactor to low-grade fuel and Chile, with U.S. assistance, removed all high-grade fuel from its research facilities.

The program to track down and remove all remaining weapons-grade material in the former allies of the Soviet Union is in full swing. The U.S. has just helped the Czech Republic become the 10th country to remove its stocks — 68 kilograms — of highly enriched uranium ... enough to build two bombs.

That makes about 20 sites around the world, containing thousands of kilograms of nuclear materials, that have been cleaned out.

There is an unusually high degree of cooperation between nations in this effort — Russia has undertaken the destruction or re-purposing of some of the material — because of the magnitude of the threat. And the United States and Russia signed a Plutonium Management and Disposition protocol in April 2010, and it entered into force in July 2011.

Nobody doubts that there are some people in the world who would not think twice about poisoning a population if it fit into their malignant plans.

We still have to figure out ways to deal with Iran’s efforts to acquire a nuclear device, and the fact that North Korea already has at least one must keep world leaders up at night.

But this other, quieter effort is, I think, a reason for some qualified optimism.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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