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Dozens of Thefts of Nuclear Materials Reported as D.C. Eyes Cuts to Nonproliferation Programs

The head of the international organization charged with stemming nuclear proliferation said today his agency receives more than 100 reports every year of thefts or related incidents involving atomic materials, and he warned that the reported cases could represent just the "tip of the iceberg."

The comments in Vienna by Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, came less than a week after the House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved fiscal 2014 Energy and Water spending bills that would cut allocations for the Energy Department's Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation as compared to the current level of spending. Lawmakers are following the lead of the administration, which had recommended cutting back on spending in this area.

Amano said nuclear security has been improved in many countries. "But," he added, "this must not lull us into a false sense of security. If a 'dirty bomb' is detonated in a major city, or sabotage occurs at a nuclear facility, the consequences could be devastating."

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee, in largely unnoticed language in a recent report accompanying its fiscal 2014 Energy and Water spending bill, issued its own dark warning: "The committee believes significant quantities of nuclear and radiological materials are still unsecure and vulnerable to theft.

More than 1,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium are still sitting in a handful of countries, large quantities of plutonium are still at risk, and over a hundred reactors still need to be converted to low enriched uranium or shut down. Further, thousands of radiological sources at medical facilities in the United States and overseas are not well protected and could be used for radiological dispersal devices, which could cause serious economic, psychological, and social disruption."

At the same time, a pair of arms control groups issued a joint report today calling global efforts to control the diversion of nuclear materials "inadequate."

Last week, Senate Appropriations approved its $34.8 billion Energy and Water bill, which would allocate $2.18 billion for the nonproliferation office. That's a roughly 10 percent cut compared to the fiscal 2013 enacted level, but slightly more than the $2.14 billion that the administration requested.