SAN FRANCISCO - International researchers have compiled what they say is the world's most complete database of lost, stolen and misplaced nuclear material - depicting a world awash in weapons-grade uranium and plutonium that nobody can account for. "It truly is frightening," Lyudmila Zaitseva, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies, said this week. "I think this is the tip of the iceberg."
Stanford announced its database as U.S. senators held a hearing in Washington to assess the threat of "dirty bombs," or radioactive material dispersed by conventional explosives.
The Stanford program, dubbed the Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources, is intended to help governments and international agencies track wayward nuclear material worldwide, supplementing existing national programs that often fail to share information.
The project took on added urgency following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which spurred fears that extremists might seek to use nuclear weapons in the future.
"It blows the mind, the lack of information," said George Bunn, a veteran arms control negotiator and a member of the database group. "What we're trying to say is: 'What are the facts?'"
The facts, even on cursory examination, are chilling.
Zaitseva said that, over the past 10 years, at least 88 pounds (40 kg) of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium had been stolen from poorly protected nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union. While most of this material subsequently was retrieved, at least 4.4 pounds (2 kg) of highly enriched uranium stolen from a reactor in Georgia remains missing.
Other thefts have included several fuel rods that disappeared from a research reactor in the Congo in the mid-1990s. While one of these fuel rods later resurfaced in Italy - reportedly in the hands of the Mafia - the other has not been found.
The Stanford group, led by nuclear physicist and arms control researcher Friedrich Steinhausler, decided to form its database after becoming alarmed over the patchy nature of most of the available information.
Combining data from two existing unclassified databases and adding new information from sources ranging from government agencies to local media reports, the team has evaluated each entry for accuracy and probability.
An expert at the Federation of American Scientists, the oldest U.S. arms control group, welcomed the establishment of the database, saying it could play a crucial role in helping governments ascertain the real level of nuclear threat.
"This is a smart step," said Michael Levi, director of the group's Strategic Security Project. "Knowing what's out there is the first step to bringing it back in."
'ORPHAN' RADIATION ALSO A THREAT
The database includes illicitly obtained weapons-grade nuclear material as well as "orphaned" radiation sources - scientific or medical material that may have been lost, misplaced or simply thrown away but which still poses a health and security threat.
Steinhausler said the database would be open only to approved researchers, and that the Stanford group was beginning to contact government agencies in the United States and Europe about sharing information to build more effective international supervision of nuclear material.
"We cannot supply the means to improve the situation," Steinhausler said in a statement. "We're pinpointing weaknesses and loopholes and saying, 'Do something about it.'"
Zaitseva, visiting Stanford from the Kazakhstan National Nuclear Center, said the database was helping to build a dim picture of the market for stolen uranium, plutonium, and other dangerous materials.
But she added that while in many cases those behind nuclear thefts can be identified, the ultimate destination of the nuclear material has remained a mystery.
"We haven't found a single occasion in which the actual end users have been caught," Zaitseva told Reuters.
"We can only guess by the routes where the material is going. We can't say for sure if it is Iraq, Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda or Hezbollah. We can only make assumptions."
She added that the dangers of an unsupervised, underground market in nuclear material were likely to grow, noting that a U.S.-sponsored program to secure nuclear components in the former Soviet Union thus far had only locked up about a third of an estimated 600 tons of weapons-usable material.
"It's just not protected," she said. "This is hot stuff. If you steal 20 kilograms of that material, you can build a nuclear weapon."
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