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After Mexican Theft, Critics Question if IAEA Radiological Security Rules Are Enough

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

The area of Tepojaco, in Mexico's Hidalgo state, on Dec. 4 where a truck transporting a 'teletherapy source' containing cobalt-60 was stolen by gunmen two days earlier. U.N. atomic watchdogs may look at developing international rules for securing such radiological sources, but critics say the effort might not be enought to prevent so-called "dirty bombs" (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images). The area of Tepojaco, in Mexico's Hidalgo state, on Dec. 4 where a truck transporting a 'teletherapy source' containing cobalt-60 was stolen by gunmen two days earlier. U.N. atomic watchdogs may look at developing international rules for securing such radiological sources, but critics say the effort might not be enought to prevent so-called "dirty bombs" (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- International Atomic Energy Agency officials are considering developing legally binding rules aimed at securing radioactive materials like those stolen in Mexico this week, but nonproliferation advocates argue the effort is likely not enough to prevent incidents involving so-called “dirty bombs.”

The U.N. nuclear agency announced on Wednesday morning that thieves two days earlier had stolen a truck en route to Tijuana. The vehicle had been transporting cobalt-60, a radioactive substance commonly used in cancer treatments and at food-irradiation facilities. The stolen truck and the missing radioactive substances were recovered on Wednesday evening.

So-called radioactive “source materials” cannot create a nuclear explosion akin to an atomic bomb, but could be used to disperse dangerous contamination if paired with conventional explosives.

While it is unclear exactly how much cobalt-60 went missing in Mexico this week, a 2002 report by the Federation of American Scientists estimated that a single piece of the material taken from a food-irradiation plant could contaminate a roughly 386 square-mile area at levels that would exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s conventional standards for long-term cancer risk.

If removed from its protective shielding, direct exposure to the stolen cobalt-60 source itself could cause death within days or even minutes due to radiation sickness, authorities said this week.

The reported theft came on the heels of an IAEA release on Nov. 30 of a document containing the official findings of an international conference on radioactive-source security that took place in the United Arab Emirates in late October.

The conference, attended by representatives of 88 countries, produced a recommendation “that the IAEA should convene a working group to assess the merits of developing a convention on the safety and security of radioactive sources,” according to the document. The agency would then decide whether to seek support from member countries for the creation of such a legally binding accord.

Nonproliferation advocates said on Wednesday that IAEA examination of the issue is a welcome step, but is unlikely to reduce the dirty-bomb threat on its own. They noted one option IAEA officials would consider was the creation of a binding convention based on an existing, voluntary code of conduct that has been recognized by 119 countries.

“If that was the only thing you did, to make the code binding, I’m not sure that would necessarily suffice,” Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Global Security Newswire. “The problem is that this tends to be the poor step-child of nuclear security.

“The radiological-security issue even here in [U.S.] budgets tends to get cut first when there’s a budget problem and doesn’t get the resources it needs,” Pomper added. “So even if you’ve got these laws on the books, the implementation would be a lot of the problem.”

In the United States, Senate appropriators are looking to place a higher priority on locking down potential dirty bomb materials than the House and Obama administration have sought. The Senate Appropriations Committee in June approved a bill that would have given the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative $49 million more in fiscal year 2014 for international material protection than the administration requested.

The legislation also would have provided $15 million more than the Obama camp requested for the agency’s domestic-material protection efforts. The agency is a semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department that oversees the U.S. nuclear weapon complex and nonproliferation efforts.

The senators described the NNSA initiative as “the only government program that provides physical upgrades for civilian sites” and raised concerns that funding cuts proposed by the administration would cause a goal of securing 8,500 buildings by 2025 to slip by nearly 20 years to 2044.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, meanwhile, has raised concerns that Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulation of domestic source security is not strong enough.

How U.S. officials would respond to the detonation of a dirty bomb is also in question. The Environmental Protection Agency in April released a new guide suggesting its typical cancer-risk benchmarks might not be followed in the event of a radiological incident.

Had terrorists gotten a hold of the cobalt-60 source stolen in Mexico for an attack on U.S. soil, the new EPA document “would potentially allow very high exposures to the public without cleanup or other protections,” Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at the University of California-Santa Cruz, told GSN on Thursday.

Pomper said international leaders should place greater emphasis -- and provide more funding for -- efforts to replace technologies that rely on dangerous radioactive sources with alternative equipment that is not dependent on the material.

“You can use x-ray technology instead of cesium chloride in blood irradiators,” Pomper said. “Or you can use accelerators instead of these cobalt-60 machines." However, “some of this technology has just come along; some of it is a question of expense -- particularly for developing countries,” he added.

In Europe, some countries have already phased out the use of cesium chloride blood irradiators, Pomper said. In October, the World Institute for Nuclear Security hosted a meeting on expanding the use of such alternative technologies. NNSA officials had planned to attend but were not able due to the federal government shutdown, according to Pomper.

It is not clear, however, that an international law on radiological security is the appropriate response to this week’s incident in Mexico, Pomper said. The cobalt-60 was on its way to a proper disposal facility when it was stolen, but whether adequate security precautions were made en route could be in question, he said.

“You could say they need better procedures -- does that have to be an international standard or does Mexico in particular have to look at this because Mexico has a crime problem?” Pomper asked. “Does Switzerland need to do this? I don’t know.”

George Moore, a scientist in residence at the James Martin Center, said he was doubtful a legally binding convention regarding potential dirty bomb material would be embraced by the international community, given the difficulty it has had finalizing similar accords that cover material that could be used to create a weapon akin to a nuclear bomb.

A 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material has yet to come into full force, and the United States is among the outlier nations, he noted.

“States pretty jealously guard the fact that security is a sovereign issue,” Moore told GSN. “I really doubt at this point in time states would say let’s sign onto a convention.”

The IAEA conference document lists some potential drawbacks to the pursuit of a legally binding convention. Some conference participants fear that successes associated with the existing, voluntary code of conduct could be undermined and that a legally binding accord might not attract as many participants.

“Furthermore, it was felt that the development and eventual ratification of such a convention and the implementation of its requirements would take much more time than had been the case with the code of conduct,” according to the conference document. “There could also be conflicts in requirements which could dilute the effectiveness of existing safety and security provisions.”

Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, told GSN the arguments against pursuing a legally binding accord were overstated and that a convention is needed.

“The problem, as the report freely admits, is that the current international radiological security system based on the code of conduct is completely voluntary, and adherence is not uniform across borders and assessments of its implementation are difficult as a result,” he said.

Still, Luongo, who served as senior adviser to the Energy secretary on nonproliferation policy issues during the Clinton administration, said an IAEA study of a potentially legally binding accord was not enough.

“Kicking the ball to the IAEA staff for further evaluation is not going to make anything new happen anytime soon,” said Luongo. He argued that more “political leadership” is needed on the issue and that the matter should receive significant attention -- both domestically and during the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands next year.

“My feeling has always been that the top levels of [the Obama] administration have not accorded the radiological security issue the attention it needs and deserves, and have done little to defend the NNSA efforts from budget cuts,” he said. “But, what NNSA is doing -- both domestically and internationally -- is very important.”

NNSA officials on Nov. 22 announced they had “successfully recovered a disused, high-activity cesium-137 source from Massachusetts General Hospital in downtown Boston. On Nov. 15, the agency said it had “recovered high-activity radioactive materials from an oncology clinic in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.”

This week’s events in the Latin American country, however, are a “perfect example of inconsistency in implementation and security procedures,” Luongo said.

Spokesmen for the White House and the National Nuclear Security Administration did not respond to requests for comment.

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