Energy Secretary Abraham on Security of Radiological Materials

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Publication date: 
27 May 2003

"There is nothing [terrorists] would like better than to cause the panic that the detonation of a radiological dispersal device would create. We know from experience with accidental releases of radiological sources that they can cause widespread panic, economic hardship, and significant health concerns.... It is our responsibility to determine how to prevent such an attack in the first place, and how we should respond if, despite our best efforts, such an attack were to occur." - Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham

At an international conference earlier this year, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham pledged that the United States would assist other countries - especially developing countries - in tracking, securing, and disposing of radiological sources that could be used by terrorists in Radiological Dispersal Devices, or "dirty bombs." Selections from Abraham's remarks, made on March 11 at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference on the Security of Radioactive Sources, are highlighted below. Some paragraphs have been combined to save space. The full text of Abraham's remarks can be found on the DOE web site at


"We are gathered here to deal with an important issue: the terrible threat posed by those who would turn beneficial radioactive sources into deadly weapons. The technical term for these weapons - Radiological Dispersal Devices or RDDs - has not come into general use.... But increasingly the public knows about these weapons, and they are deeply concerned. They call RDDs, ‘dirty bombs.'

"It is our critically important job to deny terrorists the radioactive sources they need to construct such weapons. The threat requires a determined and comprehensive international response. Our governments must act, individually and collectively, to identify all the high-risk radioactive sources that are being used and that have been abandoned. We must educate our officials and the general populace, raising awareness of the existence of these dangerous radioactive sources and the consequences of their misuse. And we must account for and tightly secure these sources wherever they may be."


"Radioactive sources can be found all over the world, and terrorists are seeking to acquire them.... There is nothing they would like better than to cause the panic that the detonation of a radiological dispersal device would create. We know from experience with accidental releases of radiological sources that they can cause widespread panic, economic hardship, and significant health concerns."

"That's why our work is so important. It is our responsibility to determine how to prevent such an attack in the first place, and how we should respond if, despite our best efforts, such an attack were to occur. All countries should act in their own self-interest by taking the steps needed to better secure high-risk radioactive sources.

"My reason for suggesting the conference was in no small measure because RDDs are different from what we are accustomed to in our more traditional nuclear non-proliferation work. We are used to policing a defined number of nuclear facilities. Our job has been to focus on that small number of countries bent on violating the nuclear non-proliferation norm and acquiring fissile materials for nuclear weapons. But the radiological materials that could be used in an RDD exist in a variety of forms in virtually every country in the world. And they are often loosely monitored and secured, if at all."


"The use of radioactive sources is widespread. They have many beneficial industrial, agricultural, research and medical applications. In the medical field alone, roughly one hundred radioisotopes are used in various nuclear medical research, diagnosis, sterilization, and teletherapy applications. Millions of cancer patients have had their lives prolonged due to radiotherapy treatments, and patients of all kinds have benefitted from bacteria-free, sterile medical equipment made possible by irradiation technology."

"Scientific research using radioactive materials takes place in laboratories all over the world. Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs, have been used for remote power application. Industrial gauges containing radioactive sources are commonplace. Radiation is used to increase the size and improve the health of crops, and remote beacons stand sentinel for years thanks to radiation's energy.

"Despite the wide use of radioactive sources, only a small portion of them poses a real threat as potential ingredients in an RDD. I called for this Conference last September in order to raise awareness of those radiological materials that have the greatest potential to result in exposure, contamination, and mass disruption. Your presence here - almost 600 participants from well over 100 countries - is reassuring proof of how seriously we all take the RDD threat.... [T]aking measures to control dangerous is not just the responsibility of few nations, but all nations. Each of us must act to create a seamless web of protection and control of high-risk radioactive sources to prevent their malicious use. Each of us must take on this significant responsibility."


"In the United States, we are evaluating potential vulnerabilities in our control of these materials in order to strengthen our regulatory infrastructure to better account for them, to track their use and disposition, and to ensure appropriate protection during import and export. We are also working to ensure that those using these radioactive sources are authorized to do so and are using them for legitimate purposes. In determining what additional protective measures might be needed, we are using a graded approach that takes into account potential hazards and protective measures already in place."


"The United States believes that to solve the problems we will discuss today, we must attack them in all their dimensions. That's why I am pleased to announce today a new initiative that I hope will become international in scale. The Radiological Security Partnership is a three-pronged approach to addressing the potential threats from under-secured, high-risk radioactive sources.

"The first prong is helping countries accelerate and expand national initiatives to keep track of and better secure national inventories of high-risk radioactive sources. In this regard, our new partnership includes a new initiative to provide well over $1 million in technical assistance and equipment to IAEA Member States to facilitate effective tracking of high-risk sources.... Second, countries need to draw on international resources that can give practical advice and assistance in bringing these sources under control. The United States is currently working with Russia and the IAEA to identify and secure high-risk radioactive sources in the former Soviet Union, and we believe the time has come to broaden that kind of cooperation.

"To do so, I am pleased to announce a new United States initiative to expand this ‘Tripartite' model to other countries in need of assistance. It is my hope that this model, which is working so well in the former Soviet Union, will become global in scale. The United States will focus our resources where the need is greatest. Our emphasis will be on developing countries. We are prepared to work with other countries to locate, consolidate, secure, and dispose of high-risk, orphan radiological sources by developing a system of national and regional repositories to consolidate and securely store these sources. The international efforts to choke off the illicit traffic in these sources must also be given highest priority.... I recently initiated a new Department of Energy project to improve our ability to detect nuclear materials or weapons en route to the United States.

"As the third prong of our plan, I will now expand this project by focusing on other major transit and shipping hubs, which will improve our efforts to interdict and prevent illicit trafficking in high-risk radioactive sources globally. I am also pleased to announce that next week members of the United States Department of Energy will participate with the IAEA in important consultations that will set technical specifications for border monitoring equipment.... By working together on all these dimensions of the threat, we have a chance to make rapid and significant progress toward our shared objective of reducing the potential threats from the highest risk sources.

"The Radiological Security Partnership is a United States priority. To demonstrate our commitment, the United States plans to contribute $3 million over the next year to support the Partnership. In particular, this money will support our efforts to work with developing countries to secure high-risk sources in their countries."

"I know many of you have also taken important steps, and we will all benefit from your knowledge and experience as we each strive to establish ‘best practices and procedures' and come to grips with the challenges presented by radiological sources. That is why this Conference is important - it will help all of us to establish a framework for addressing these issues, and taking the critical next steps to protect our citizens and provide for our security.... It is my hope and expectation that, as a result of our intensive and wide ranging discussions, we will reach a consensus on steps that can be taken to ensure that the IAEA and other resources are made available to all nations."

"We must all identify the high-risk radioactive sources in our countries and ensure that they are under secure and regulated control. We must determine the criteria we will use to identify the radioactive sources that provide the greatest threat to security, so that nations can establish effective regulatory infrastructures. We must assess the security of our borders, and further improve our ability to prevent the illicit transit of radiological sources. And we must know realistically just how prepared we are to respond, in the case of an actual emergency involving these sources."


"I hope that historians will someday write that our deliberations signaled a turning point - that on March 11, 2003 we began to forge an international consensus on the need to deal urgently and decisively with the most dangerous and vulnerable radioactive source threats."

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