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A New Group Targets Nuclear Security

CONCERNS ABOUT the security of nuclear materials around the world have been percolating since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They intensified after 9-11, and they are rising again with concerns about Pakistan’s stability and worries about the status of Iran’s efforts to become a nuclear nation.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told world leaders that the number of incidents of loss or theft of nuclear or radioactive material reported to his group was “disturbingly high, ” standing at 250 in the year ending June 2008. “The possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear or other radioactive material remains a grave threat,” the chief of the UN’s atomic watchdog agency said.

While the quantity of confiscated material is small, ElBaradei noted that missing material is often not recovered. He also noted that authorities sometimes find material that was never reported missing.

The desire for energy independence is leading more countries to turn to nuclear energy. More nuclear energy plants mean more nuclear materials in the hands of countries that have never dealt with nuclear activities. These countries will be starting in a “zero regulatory environment,” says Corey Hinderstein, who directs the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) international program.

The World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) has been recently established to address the problem. “We really believe that WINS can help bring the lessons of countries and companies that have been dealing with nuclear activities for decades, in many cases, to the nuclear newcomer states and help them kind of jump the learning curve a little bit,” says Hinderstein, who managed the development of WINS.

The effort will enable those countries “to more effectively implement security in a way that they might not be able to do if they didn’t have the ability to rely on the professional experience of others around the world,” she says.

WINS, which is led by the former security director of British Nuclear Fuels, Dr. Roger Howsley, provides a forum for nuclear industry professionals to discuss approaches to security. While specific details of security measures, like the types and locations of cameras in a facility, will never be discussed, Hinderstein says that strategies can be addressed, including how to motivate a guard force, passive versus active monitoring systems, and best practices for psychologically evaluating employees.

Because of limited resources, the new organization is initially focusing on securing materials that could be used in a nuclear weapon—highly enriched uranium and plutonium—but as its membership increases, it will expand to include the protection of radiological materials as well.

Forty countries have facilities with material that could be used in a nuclear weapon, and there are thousands of sources of radioactive materials, including hospitals, agriculture and industrial facilities, and oil fields.

WINS—which brings together experts from industry, government, and international organizations—is a joint project of NTI, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management, a professional organization for the industry. WINS works closely with the IAEA; its offices are also located near the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

The U.S. Department of Energy matched a $3 million contribution to WINS from NTI. Norway gave $100,000 to the effort. Hinderstein says their contribution is being specifically directed to support the participation of experts from the developing world in WINS activities.

The organization has received letters of support from industry leaders around the world, including the director of Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, the director general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, and several groups in the United Kingdom.

WINS is also intended to serve the more basic purpose of creating more public awareness of nuclear security issues. “It’s a little bit like bank security,” says David Albright, president of the nonprofit, Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

The issue is that with nuclear plants, as with banks, “if you’re not improving the security, it’s actually weakening over time, because vulnerabilities develop, and they can be exploited,” says Albright.

Hinderstein says it’s important to preserve the peaceful benefit of the atom, whether it’s for nuclear power or increasing crop yields, while minimizing the atom’s potential for destruction: “So really what we see WINS doing,” she says, “is also helping to reinforce those places where the atom is being used for the peaceful benefit of communities.”