The capture of over a pound of powderized uranium in Slovakia last week has served as a sharp reminder to Europe, though nuclear experts have cast doubt on the assertion by local law-enforcement officials that terrorists could have used it for a "dirty bomb."
The incident comes just weeks before Slovakia, Hungary, and seven other recent European Union inductees _ some of which are former Soviet states – join the passport-free Schengen zone on Dec. 21. As the EU's borderless travel area expands, the arrest has brought renewed attention to unsecured nuclear material from former Soviet states.
"We seem to be immune to understanding that this is worrisome, [saying] 'Oh well, it's not enough for a nuclear weapon, or radioactive enough for a dirty bomb,'" says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "Enriched uranium at any level is a worry; even if low-enriched uranium, it should be a wake-up call of the danger that someone who might be covertly enriching to make a bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium could get a hold of this as fresh feed to accelerate their enrichment efforts."
With the Schengen expansion, Western European countries will suddenly become more dependent on their former cold-war adversaries for nuclear security. Once an individual crosses, for example, the Slovak-Ukrainian border, he or she is unlikely to face passport controls anywhere in the western half of the continent.
Still, Schengen membership may actually help secure nuclear materials, says Vitaly Fedchenko, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "It won't be that Slovakia is on its own," he says. "Slovakia could and should tap into EU expertise and further financial resources to help shield the border. It's also in the interest of the EU, obviously."
The treaty will give law-enforcement officials more freedom to chase suspects across borders. Brussels is also likely to add pressure on the new members to disrupt the radioactive trade.
The EU has poured millions of euros into bolstering its eastern borders, which some say will hang a new Iron Curtain further to the East.
Meanwhile, incidents like the one in Slovakia last week seem to be catching Europe's attention. Two weeks ago in Edinburgh, at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference on illicit nuclear trafficking, European officials, scholars, and law-enforcement officers highlighted the threat to Europe, and the need for multiagency efforts in response.
Overall, the IAEA Illicit Trafficking Database has recorded more than 1,200 incidents since its creation in 1993, with a 385 percent increase in incidents from 2002 to 2006. This leap, says the IAEA, is mostly due to improved reporting. And in only a fraction of these cases was the material radioactive enough to be a weapon ingredient.
"If some crackpot used sources in this way, this would be a weapon of mass disruption, not destruction," said an IAEA official in Vienna not authorized to speak on the record. "But it's not that there's suddenly a huge market and more bad guys getting into the act. There's been a kind of rising tide all around, with better control, inventory, detection, and interdiction."
Russia, which has tightened its controls somewhat, still remains a "focus of concern" for illicit material, according to a 2006 report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based advocacy group.
The problem first emerged in 1991, as the Soviet Union's disintegration loosened Moscow's grip on its nuclear stocks. As NTI wrote, a once-effective security system "designed for a single state with a closed society, closed borders, and well-paid, well-cared-for nuclear workers was splintered among multiple states with open societies; open borders; desperate, underpaid nuclear workers; and rampant theft and corruption."
According to the NTI report, many facilities were only padlocked and few had special detectors at their doors to signal when highly enriched uranium or plutonium left the premises.
Yet in the years since, a stronger Russian economy, coupled with US and European assistance, has helped Moscow reassert its grip – somewhat.
Highly publicized incidents illustrate both the persistent problem and law enforcement's determination.
In this latest incident, Slovak and Hungarian police told local media they were following the trafficked uranium since August, until the suspects – two Hungarians and a Ukrainian – crossed from Hungary into Slovakia last week with plans to sell it for $1 million.
Slovak police said they suspected the radioactive material was likely from an ex-Soviet republic and enriched enough to make a "dirty bomb."
But as details trickled in, independent experts and United Nations officials questioned its potency, suggesting on Thursday it would take much more to wreak havoc.
"Uranium is not very radiotoxic," David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former UN weapons inspector, told AP. "The net effect of dispersing half a kilo of uranium – who cares? Each person would get so little it would have no effect."