IAEA says world nuclear security faltering

OSLO Tue Feb 26, 2008 10:43am EST

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OSLO (Reuters) - The United Nations nuclear watchdog said on Tuesday that global nuclear security was faltering and called on leaders to refocus on nuclear issues and kick-start a new round of disarmament talks.

"We need to bolster the non-proliferation regime and move on to nuclear disarmament," said Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"We are at a crucial juncture. The system is faltering," ElBaradei told a conference in the Norwegian capital where he and the IAEA received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

He said the IAEA was aware of 150 cases per year of nuclear material or weapons gone missing, which could potentially end up in the hands of "organized crime or worse -- extremists".

ElBaradei said nuclear topics, leading issues in the Cold War, had "gone out of fashion and almost disappeared from the international agenda", yielding to causes like global warming.

"There continue to be many gaps in the current security system which make it vulnerable to abuse ... This is actually the greatest danger we face -- that nuclear weapons or material could fall into the wrong hands," said ElBaradei.

He said that if extremists gained nuclear weapons they would "almost certainly be used", since the concept of mutual deterrence that exists between countries with atomic arms was "totally irrelevant to extremist ideology."

ElBaradei did not mention any such groups or countries by name. He also declined to take questions about Iran's nuclear program. Western powers fear Tehran wants to build atomic bombs, while Iran maintains its program is for power generation.

NUCLEAR PEARL HARBOR

Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz told the conference that global tensions remained high due to the proliferation of destructive weapons and said world leaders must refocus on nuclear issues immediately.

"We can't wait for a nuclear Pearl Harbor," said Shultz, the top U.S. diplomat under President Ronald Reagan.

ElBaradei said a nuclear-free world was "not impossible" and urged significant reductions in nuclear arsenals and changes in the status of nuclear weapons systems to reduce the risk of accident or malfunction.

He also called for a wider role and more funds for the IAEA, whose multinational character made it better equipped to handle a world in which some states hold nuclear weapons as a deterrent and others are prohibited from doing the same.

"We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction, yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for their security," he said.

The United States and Russia jointly hold 95 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal of about 27,000 warheads -- many of which are hundreds of times more powerful than the bombs which obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War Two.

"A handful of missiles carried today on a single bomber or submarine could wipe out the entire population of a country," ElBaradei said. "That message needs to be brought home to a wider public."

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