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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Terror threat increases risks of current nuclear waste storage methods - IAEA

18 July The threat of terrorism, including so-called dirty bombs, has greatly increased the dangers of storing radioactive waste on or near the surface, the method now commonly used, instead of burying it deep below the ground, according to a position paper released by the United Nations nuclear watchdog today.

"Over the last few decades, the security of nuclear materials has been of increasing concern," the paper says. "Occurrences of illicit trafficking and the events of 11 September 2001 in the United States (when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York and part of the Pentagon near Washington, D.C.) have heightened these concerns."

The paper - "The Long Term Storage of Radioactive Waste: Safety and Sustainability" - drawn up by experts from 15 countries and published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, refers to dangers arising from theft not only to produce a nuclear explosion but also to spread radiation as with a dirty bomb.

"While nuclear material has traditionally attracted security precautions to prevent it falling into unauthorized possession, it is now recognized that non-fissile material must also be protected because of the possible threat of deliberate spreading of contamination by terrorists," it says. "The material is obviously much more vulnerable to attack if placed on the surface. In geological disposal facilities (deep burial), it is beyond the reach of all but the most determined and sophisticated individuals or groups."

The paper notes that many current storage facilities are located on the same site as other active nuclear facilities and therefore benefit from overall site security arrangements and emphasizes that if storage continues longer than the operational lifetime of the other facilities, on-site security will have to be continued independently.

"Security considerations, which carry increasing weight, lead strongly and unequivocally to (geological) disposal being desirable as at early a date as is reasonable," the paper says, although it adds that experience of operating such repositories has not yet been obtained.

But, it warns: "The argument that action (on replacing surface storage) should be postponed until a scientifically better solution is developed is not convincing. After several decades of research on the disposal of nuclear wastes, geological disposal is the only approach that has gained widespread credibility in the scientific community and therefore it is highly unlikely that some completely new idea will be forthcoming."

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