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Missing nuclear material may pose attack threat: IAEA via Reuters

(Reuters) – Nuclear and radioactive materials are still going missing and the information the United Nations atomic agency receives about such incidents may be the tip of the iceberg, said a senior U.N. official.

Any loss or theft of highly enriched uranium, plutonium or different types of radioactive sources is potentially serious as al Qaeda-style militants could try to use them to make a crude nuclear device or a so-called dirty bomb, experts say.

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The U.N. agency is helping states combat smuggling of uranium, plutonium or other items that could be used for a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb, which uses conventional explosives to scatter radioactive material across a wide area posing health risks and massive cleanup costs.

About 150-200 cases are reported annually to the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database. More than 120 countries take part in this information exchange project, covering theft, sabotage, unauthorized access and illegal transfers.

While making clear that most were not major from a nuclear security point of view, Mrabit said some were serious incidents involving nuclear material such as uranium or plutonium.

These incidents mean that “material is still out of regulatory control”, said Mrabit, who heads the nuclear security office of the IAEA. “Maybe this is the tip of the iceberg, we don’t know, this is what countries report to us.”

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Because radioactive material is seen as less hard to find and the device easier to manufacture, experts say a “dirty bomb” is a more likely threat than a nuclear bomb.

In dirty bombs, conventional explosives are used to disperse radiation from a radioactive source, which can be found in hospitals, factories or other places not very well protected.

George M. Moore, a former senior IAEA analyst, said in an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last month that “many experts believe it’s only a matter of time before a dirty bomb or another type of radioactive dispersal device” is used.

Mrabit said: “Statistically speaking no reasonable person will say that this will never happen. The probability is there.”

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