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Joe Cirincione

Joe Cirincione

Posted April 15, 2009 | 03:02 PM (EST)

Dirty Nuclear Business


They thought they were selling plutonium. What they actually had might be even scarier. A foiled plot in Ukraine shows the gaping holes in efforts to contain deadly radioactive materials that could be used in dirty bombs. It is time to crack down on this trade. Obama needs to push his plan now.

Three men were caught in the Ukraine trying to sell eight pounds of plutonium 239 -- a material for the explosive core of a nuclear weapon. Ukrainian Security Services arrested the smugglers before they went to market. Analysis of the material showed it was actually americium -- a highly radioactive substance. The smuggled material was produced in Russia prior to the Soviet Union's collapse.

Radioactive materials, like those seized in the Ukraine, are the deadly makings for dirty bombs. A terrorist could scatter a few ounces of americium with a conventional explosive in it any of the world's cities, contaminating a ten-block radius with radioactive poison.

How threatening is this? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that governments caught 827 nuclear smuggling incidents between 1993 and 2005 - several involving plutonium or highly-enriched uranium. Luckily the Ukraine incident did not involve material for a nuclear explosive weapon. But it easily could have. Harvard's Matt Bunn shows, despite US and Russian efforts, less than two-thirds of the nuclear weapons materials in the former Soviet Union have been fully secured since 1991.

Nuclear smugglers are trying to exploit this lax security, and there is much we can do about it.

In Prague, President Obama announced a new global initiative to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. The president plans to host a global summit on nuclear security within the year.

Fortunately, Obama recognizes the necessity of securing these materials, saying, "We must act with a sense of purpose without delay". The threat is present, and it is high time we address our most urgent threat and lock down loose nuclear materials.

A truly scary aspect of this latest incident is that these Ukrainian businessmen thought they had plutonium and still were willing to sell it. This time we averted a nuclear catastrophe. Next time we might not be so lucky.