Nuclear Watchdog Chief Warns of Nukes Falling Into the Wrong Hands

DAVOS, Switzerland  While the mood here at Davos has been optimistic about recovery from the global credit crisis, the consensus is that the world is far from out of the woods.

Austerity and cutbacks are the buzzwords in this exclusive ski resort for this week, at least.

Among those worried about funding his project in this tight environment is Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.

He is here at the World Economic Forum making the case for his agency. “We are aware of the difficulties of countries (who fund the IAEA). I need to strike a good balance of the needs of the agency and the capacity of countries to contribute.”

Amano is also here to make sure political leaders at this global meeting are fully aware of some of the risks we all face in the area of nuclear proliferation. He does not just mean North Korea and Iran.

“Another risk is nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists. Some people do not believe this is a real risk. But the IAEA has a database and, on average, every two days we receive information about the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials or radioactive materials and this may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

Amano would not specify where the “loose nukes” threat lies, only saying that terrorists target the weakest link in the network. There have been cases of arrests in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, through which people have attempted to smuggle small amounts of highly enriched uranium. Georgia has an active task force that is vigorously following the trade in illicit materials, with effect.

Amano told Fox News, “Nowadays, with the current level of world technology, terrorists can make nuclear weapons -- well, dirty bombs, at least.”

Of course, the topic of Iran is still a major concern for the nuclear watchdog. Talks between six world powers and Iran last weekend in Turkey broke down.

“Regarding the Istanbul meetings, it was a disappointment, because no significant progress was made.”

Amano, who has a reputation for being much tougher and direct about the problems with the Iran file than his predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamad El Baradei, continued, “Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA is not sufficient and therefore we cannot confirm the absence of certain nuclear or undeclared activities or that Iran’s program is only for peaceful purposes.”

While Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program is peaceful, and that it is cooperating fully with the IAEA, the group of world powers, including the United States, which met with Iranian negotiators last weekend, pushed to have Iran agree to measures that would help the international community gain clarity about Tehran’s program. Iran flatly refused.

Amano said, “There are some activities with a military dimension. I’m not saying Iran has a nuclear weapon, but there are some activities that have some military aspects and we have some concerns.”

Iran has not agreed to the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would allow inspectors to visit undeclared but suspect sites. That is a worry, especially after the sudden discovery of a new enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom in September 2009.

Amano said his team is not certain to what extent the Stuxnet computer worm sent Iran back. But to the extent to which it poses a danger to any nuclear program, the agency is studying it.

Finally, while the very serious and real concerns about proliferation mount, made even more acute now by the fact that more and more countries are embracing nuclear energy as a green and stable fuel source, Amano says his agency also has untapped potential to help with the management of water, and treatment of cancer around the world.

“The IAEA has expertise in nuclear medicine and radiotherapy which are very effective in diagnosis and treatment. Then there is water. Water has some isotopes. If we monitor the radio isotopes coming from water, we can measure where aquifers for ground water are and if we can measure the resource we can better control it.”

In the meantime, though, much of the world’s attention is focused on Iran and a resolution to its nuclear stand-off with the international community. The IAEA needs funding to keep its inspectors highly trained and with the most current equipment to do their job. But as proliferation experts say, the inspectors can only be as good as the cooperation they get from countries they are inspecting.