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Experts: Nuclear Research Reactors Are Easy Terrorists Targets - 2002-08-24


A combined U.S., Russian and Serbian operation retrieved weapons grade uranium from a nuclear facility in Serbia Thursday. Experts say there are other similar, lightly-guarded nuclear facilities around the world.

One expert calls the Vinca reactor outside of Belgrade just the tip of the iceberg. There are, he says, dozens of similar research reactors where uranium rods could become the raw material of nuclear weapons. Such facilities could become targets of terrorists intent on getting nuclear materials. Jon Wolfstal is the deputy director of the non-proliferation project at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The United States and Russia have both supplied research reactors to countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea. So the possibility of unsafeguarded fuel in small countries with poor security is out there," said Jon Wolfstal, the deputy director of the non-proliferation project at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. Wolfstal, who previously worked on non-proliferation at the U.S. Department of Energy, said there are research reactors in over 40 countries around the world.

"From a terrorist point of view we're worried about all of them," he explained. "The threat that a terrorist group could infiltrate and either steal the material, use it for dirty bombs, or actually blow up the reactor itself is a major concern. There are smaller number of reactors and countries that use weapons grade materials. And countries like Iran is an obvious concern… But we're also worried about reactors in countries like Greece, which have an active terrorist problem and have weapons grade material in country. As well as countries of Europe. Germany is building a brand new reactor that is going to operate on weapons-grade uranium. And as we have been discovering there are terrorist cells operating in Germany."

Mr. Wolfstal says nuclear power plants pose a lesser danger. They are monitored and regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. However, Mr. Wolfstal says breeder reactors - those that produce, or breed, weapons-grade plutonium - are worrisome. One such breeder reactor, on the Caspian Sea in Kazaktstan, he says, is of particular concern.

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