Since the end of the Cold War and despite the close attention of the IAEA and governments, nuclear material has gone astray in vast quantities, and the technology to make bombs with it has spread. Has
North Korea’s atomic threat is one of the world’s biggest nuclear security problems.
In February 2016 the launch of a missile by the Pyongyang regime was seen as as disguised test for a long-range weapon eventually capable of carrying an atomic warhead.
Kim Jong Un says North Korea is near the testing stage for a miniaturised device, and in January claimed to have exploded a hydrogen bomb for the first time.
Despite unprecedented UN Security Council sanctions voted into effect in March with Beijing’s support, North Korea continues almost daily threats against its southern neighbour and even against the USA.
The other big worry is the catastrophic scenario of a terrorist attack using a “dirty” bomb, especially if one fell into the hands of ISIL. During a wave of arrests in December Belgian police found a surveillance video of the daily routine of the former head of Belgium’s nuclear programme.
It had been filmed by the two suicide bombers who attacked Brussels, the El Barouki brothers, Ibrahim and Khalid.
Security around Belgium’s nuclear plants has since been stiffened, even as we learn that the country’s Doel 4 reactor was sabotaged in 2014, and the author of that attack is still at large. Experts are more scared not of a direct attack, but that nuclear materials could be stolen and used in a dirty bomb that, while not especially destructive, could poison a large area for decades and spark a panic.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has complied 2,734 incidents in the last 20 years of smuggling, illegal possession, losses or thefts of nuclear material.
Last November a device that uses gamma radiation to detect faulty pipeline welds was stolen from the Weatherford company warehouse in Basra, Iraq’s major port.
That is classified grade 2 material according to the IAEA, which can cause permanent tissue damage and death if handled incorrectly. By sheer luck it was found again undamaged in a rubbish dump a few weeks later. The Basra authorities believe it was because the theives were probably unable to find a buyer, and so got rid of it.
Security experts fear that it is no longer a question of “if” but of “when” nuclear material of some kind is used in an attack somewhere, and that is a chilling prospect for all concerned.