A Radiological Emergency in Nigeria

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This is a partial transcript from On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, February 28, 2003. Click here to order the entire transcript of the show.

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GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST:  Tonight the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency is reporting a radiological emergency in Nigeria, a hotbed for Muslim extremists.  Caroline Shively has the late-breaking details -- Caroline?

CAROLINE SHIVELY, FOX CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, there, Greta.  A U.N. watchdog team is now on the ground in Nigeria, searching for stolen radioactive material.  Devices used to X-ray oil pipelines were stolen from a company in Nigeria more than a week ago.  Last Friday, the Nigerian nuclear regulatory agency reported the material was missing from an oil company.  But sources now tell Fox that this was strategic theft.  U.S. officials say they don't believe a big enough quantity was stolen to make a dirty bomb and that the material itself isn't strong enough for a radiological dispersal device.  So U.S. officials tell Fox they're not concerned.

The materials have been missing for several days and may be long gone by now.  They could still be in Nigeria or could have already passed out of the country.  There are very little border control in much of Africa.  The International Atomic Energy Agency is the group that categorized this as a radiological emergency.  No connection to terrorism has been made in this case, but U.S. officials concede that there are terror cells in many African countries, including Nigeria.  Here's what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had to say about that.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  There are certainly terrorists on every continent.  And there's no question but that there are terrorists in Africa.  I wouldn't say it's the next area of activity.  I mean, we have activity there now.  We have activity in the Gulf.  We have activity in the Philippines and Central Asia.  This is a global problem.


SHIVELY:  This theft is not as rare as you might hope.  It's just one of dozens of incidents of missing or stolen nuclear material the IAEA has looked into in recent months -- Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Caroline, thank you.

Joining us from Washington is Charles Ferguson of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Charles, the IAEA says this is a radiological emergency.  The Pentagon is downplaying this.  Who should I pay attention to?

CHARLES FERGUSON, CENTER FOR NONPROLIFERATION STUDIES:  Well, when the IAEA -- traditionally, they've focused on radiation safety concerns and not security concerns.  In recent years, it has shifted more toward a focus toward security.  The Pentagon, obviously, is more concerned about security and not radiation safety.  So that's the dichotomy we're facing right now.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Bit they're saying it's an emergency.  I mean, is this something the IAEA often says or -- I mean, that -- when I read that it's a radiological emergency and that there are Muslim extremists in the area, that doesn't make me feel very comfortable tonight.

FERGUSON:  Unfortunately, there have been a lot of so-called radiological emergencies in the past several years.  We saw an instance in the Republic of Georgia and a lot of the former Soviet Union states.  There have been a lot of very highly radioactive sources that have been discovered and that need to be secured, much more highly radioactive than the materials that apparently were stolen or missing in Nigeria.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Why so long in reporting it?  I mean, it's been missing for about a week.  I mean, what -- what's been the delay, do you think?

FERGUSON:  Well, apparently, some of the news stories say it's been missing even longer than that, maybe since December.  And so if that's the case, you wonder what's been going on.  You know, two, almost three months have gone by.  You know, why did the Nigerian nuclear agency take so long to report this?  You know, anything could have happened in that length of time.  These materials could be practically anywhere in the world by now.

VAN SUSTEREN:  But if it's -- if it's strategic, if it's stolen, if it's done for sinister reasons, you might suspect that someone might be sick -- I mean -- I mean, that someone would have come in contact.  We've heard nothing about that.  So isn't that sort of -- shouldn't that be reassuring?

FERGUSON:  It should be, but if this material is what we think it is, and if it contains the type of radioactive material that is probably in that kind of device, and if it's properly shielded, it could go relatively undetected, and you might not see those kind of health concerns have surfaced.  And for that particular reason, this material could be very attractive for terrorists to use it in a dirty bomb.

VAN SUSTEREN:  How much trafficking is there of radiological material?

FERGUSON:  There's actually a great deal.  The IAEA tracks nuclear material, radiological materials.  They keep a database on this.  Some other organizations, like my own, also keeps -- keep databases on trafficking.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Is the amount that was stolen in Nigeria enough to create a dirty bomb?  Is it -- I mean, and is it easy to do that?

FERGUSON:  Well, we don't know exactly how much nuclear material was in the device.  But based on the application, it's probably likely that it doesn't contain that much radioactive material.  So we have to separate two baskets (ph) concerns.  We have to look at health concerns versus contamination concerns.  And this material, I believe, based on the description, is too low-level to present health concerns, immediate health concerns.  But if used in an effective dirty bomb, it could contaminate an area -- say Manhattan or downtown Washington, D.C. -- to such a level as will require perhaps million or billions of dollars to clean up after such an event.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Before I let you go -- you've been to North Korea, right?

FERGUSON:  Yes, I have.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Your thoughts on what's going on in North Korea.

FERGUSON:  I think we need to really pay attention to North Korea.  We need to talk to the North Koreans one on one in direct talks.  I know it seems unpalatable, might be looking like it's rewarding bad behavior, but we just appear completely focused on Iraq, and we're going to let North Korea slide by and produce more nuclear weapons.  That is just intolerable, in my opinion.

VAN SUSTEREN:  All right, Charles Ferguson, thank you.

FERGUSON:  Thank you.

Click here to order the entire transcript of the February 28 edition of On the Record.

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