Experts Warn Russia on Uranium

U.S. experts on Thursday called on Russia to step up efforts to remove highly enriched uranium from civilian facilities and keep terrorists from acquiring radioactive materials, warning it could be only a matter of time before a terrorist nuclear attack.

Michele Flourney, with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Moscow's presidency of the Group of Eight gave it an opportunity to play a global leadership role in countering this threat.

Moscow could "take a leadership role in preventing catastrophic terrorism" during its G8 presidency, she said at a joint Russian-U.S. news conference.

Laura Holgate, with the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, said terrorists could manufacture a Hiroshima-scale bomb with a relatively small quantity of radioactive materials and without "prior nuclear bomb-making knowledge or experience" because the design was available from open sources. A crude nuclear device could be made with just 40 to 60 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, Holgate said.

"If we were to suffer from some kind of terrorist attack with nuclear devices, we would wish we had moved faster to secure and remove these dangerous materials. Now is the time to speed up the process," Holgate said.

"The reduction and elimination of threats from the civilian use of highly enriched uranium is achievable," she said.

During a trip to Moscow last month, the top U.S. official in charge of nuclear safety efforts said the United States planned to work with Russia to boost international security by transporting spent atomic fuel from Soviet-designed research reactors to a reprocessing plant in Russia.

Holgate said that process of removing the highly radioactive materials from civilian facilities across the world could be speeded up by transferring them not only to the United States and Russia but to other established nuclear powers such as Britain and France.

Over 100 civilian facilities in some 40 nations have enough highly enriched uranium on site to make one or more bombs, many without adequate security, she said.

Holgate said the United States should offer more funding for this program, describing the current annual budget of $100 million as insufficient. But she said Russia itself, as the country with the largest number of research reactors, needed to take the lead in minimizing civilian use of highly enriched uranium.

"Little progress has yet been visible in terms of shrinking the highly enriched uranium use of Russian research facilities," she said.

Flourney said Moscow could use its special ties to many ex-Soviet bloc nations that hold significant stocks of radioactive materials to persuade them to send them back to Russia.

She cited two cases of al-Qaida operatives arrested trying to buy what they thought was highly enriched uranium and documents found in Afghanistan and Pakistan that showed a sophisticated knowledge of nuclear issues

"We've been lucky so far," she warned. "But we are in a race with the terrorists."