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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Experts Meet to Combat Nuclear Trade

VIENNA -- Experts on nuclear safety from 35 countries began a two-day meeting in Vienna on Wednesday to discuss ways of tightening protection of nuclear materials and to prevent their illegal trafficking.

The meeting, organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is aimed at producing a set of recommendations on what role the UN agency can play in helping to halt the increase in nuclear smuggling that has occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an agency spokesman said.

"The subjects under discussion are ways of strengthening international conventions on the protection of nuclear materials, helping with the training of people responsible for their protection, increasing the role of the IAEA in battling the problem, and incorporation of the IAEA laboratory in the analysis of confiscated materials," agency spokesman David Kyd told reporters.

NATO and the European Union have both called for urgent action to halt the smuggling of nuclear materials, and the subject was discussed at a summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations held in July.

Police across Europe have this year intercepted scores of smugglers with gram- or kilogram-loads of nuclear material in a trade that is alarming Western governments and intelligence services, particularly in the United States and Germany.

None of the uranium and plutonium seized has been of the type that could easily be turned into a bomb. But the materials can be lethal; even a tiny amount of plutonium can cause lung cancer if inhaled.

Nuclear materials can be easily transported, uranium in the form of small pellets and plutonium as a powder or liquid.

Conventions on the protection of nuclear materials already exist, but the main problem is training people and ensuring safety at ground level, Kyd said.

"It is not that the texts are not there, but the ability to monitor their actual implementation," Kyd said. "That means making sure nobody's slipping a few grams into his lunch box."

The IAEA is already helping train personnel responsible for the protection of nuclear materials at a national level in some republics of the former Soviet Union, and it is willing to widen that support to others, Kyd said. Nuclear trafficking took off when the Soviet empire crumbled in 1991. Western diplomats say most of the materials appear to be coming from Russia, mainly from waste dumps and laboratories, rather than from military sites.

If experts at the meeting agree, a set of recommendations will be presented for further action to the meeting of the agency's board of governors, scheduled for the beginning of December.