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Experts Debate Ways to Thwart Nuclear Terror


A panel of experts gathered on Capitol Hill Friday to discuss efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining enriched uranium and plutonium to make bombs.

At a briefing for congressional staffers and reporters, the experts urged Congress to do more to help secure nuclear material in the world.

Former Congressman Timothy Roemer played a key role in establishing the commission which probed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and is now president of the Center for National Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

"The bottom line is that the United States needs to show the maximum effort to address the most dangerous people in the world getting the most dangerous weapons. So far we have had a grade of insufficient progress. We are not doing enough, we are not doing it quickly enough, and we are not doing it effectively enough," he said.

Roemer said some 20 tons of highly enriched uranium exist at 130 civilian research facilities in 40 countries, many of which have no more security than a chain link fence and a night watchman. He cited International Atomic Energy Agency reports saying there have been 16 thefts involving highly enriched uranium and plutonium - loose nuclear material, he noted, that could be the source of a potential al-Qaida bomb.

Roemer urged Congress to strengthen and increase funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which is the U.S. government's main instrument for securing the loose fissile material that is still scattered around the former Soviet Union. He said the initiative must be expanded to work beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union.

"We need to make sure that beyond and above Russia, that this is not just a Russia - United States issue, but a global issue, and that we are looking at the civilian reactors, hundreds of them, throughout the world, that we need to make sure that enriched uranium does not get into the wrong hands," he said.

Another issue underscored at the Capitol Hill forum is the need for ratification of an international treaty on nuclear liability coverage.

Daniel Ponemen, a former member of the National Security Council who now works for the Scowcroft Group, an international business advisory firm, noted that an increasing number of nuclear power plants are being built around the world to meet growing energy needs.

He urged Congress to ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, which would protect U.S. suppliers of nuclear technology from unlimited civil lawsuits arising from their activities in foreign markets.

Ponemen says that such U.S. firms, which he argues have better safety records than suppliers from other countries, are reluctant to work in overseas markets because of the lack of adequate liability protection under current treaties.

"Congress needs to ratify and put into force that convention, so that when U.S. companies are working internationally, they have the insurance coverage they need to go forward. If they do not, the whole world will be ceded to other companies in other countries that are far less interested in safeguards, that are far less likely to be as safe as we are, in protecting against acts such as nuclear terrorism," he said.

Another panelist, Ellen Laipson, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Henry Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dealing with security issues, said the United States needs to continue to improve its methods of intelligence gathering and analysis.

Laipson said she is not yet convinced that the reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community following the September 11 attacks has improved.

"In the case of intelligence reform, it is possible that we are moving in the direction of bigger, but not necessarily better. I wish there were more focus on the quality of the product and the output of the intelligence community not simply the size and the arrangement of the boxes in the bureaucratic chart," he said.

Laipson is a former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the U.S. intelligence community's strategic analysis center.

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