U.N. Expands Nuke Treaty to Avert Terrorism

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An 89-nation conference on Friday approved broadening a treaty meant to keep nuclear material from the hands of terrorists, opening the way for states to ratify the agreement.

Mohamed ElBaradei (search), head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called the development an "important step toward greater nuclear security by combating, preventing and ultimately punishing those who would engage in nuclear theft, sabotage and even terrorism."

ElBaradei, whose Vienna-based agency acts as the U.N. nuclear nonproliferation watchdog, said the agreement reached in the Austrian capital over five days demonstrates "a global commitment to remedy weaknesses in our nuclear security regime."

The Convention of the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (search) originally obligated the 112 countries that have accepted it to protect nuclear material during international transport. The amended version expands such protection to materials at nuclear facilities, in domestic storage and during domestic transport or use.

An IAEA statement said the revamped treaty also will provide for expanded international cooperation for "rapid measures to locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material, mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage, and prevent and combat related offenses."

Conference approval, however, is only the first step. The amended treaty enters into force only after ratification by at least two-thirds of the 112 countries abiding by it — a process expected to take years.

Agreement was reached just a day after the London bombings, but the push to shield nuclear facilities gained urgency after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, amid new security concerns and nightmare scenarios of fuel-laden jumbo jets smashing into atomic power plants.

"We can't go on with an old instrument in a new world," the conference chairman, Alec Jean Baer of Switzerland (search), said after the opening session Monday.

The existing treaty was drawn up in Vienna and New York in 1980, long before the threat of terrorist nuclear attacks had become a pressing fear.

Though experts have long worried nuclear plants and materials could be targeted by terrorists, creating rules to protect them from such attacks has taken time because the efforts are costly and require expertise some countries don't have.