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Nuclear Proliferation

Putting a stop to nuclear smugglers

The EU is stepping up the fight against nuclear smuggling. Inspectors are being taught how to combat the illicit trafficking of radioactive material in a new facility near the German city of Karlsruhe.

An alarm is triggered. Suddenly sirens start making a shrill, wailing sound. A high level of gamma radiation has just been picked up from a truck passing through the steel columns of a border control terminal. A computer voice immediately warns of the impending danger: "Gamma alarm, gamma alarm".

But for the people sitting in the facility's observational room and those rushing out to stop the vehicle, it's just a drill. They are all students at the European Union's nuclear security training centre (EUSECTRA) located near the southern German town of Karlsruhe. The next phase of their training consists of answering the following questions: "Where does the radiation come from? How high is it? Could this simply be a false alarm or is someone actually trying to smuggle weapons-grade plutonium?

Border control scenario at EUSECTRA (Photo: Ralf Bosen)

Students train how to deal with different scenarios

"When a truck triggers an alarm because of elevated levels of gamma radiation, the vehicle is taken aside for examination," says project manager Klaus Mayer, who is in charge of the drill. "Then you proceed to separate the freight from the driver and start looking for the radiation source," he adds. According to Mayer, inspectors use a handheld device to determine whether the alarm has been triggered by a system malfunction, a so-called natural emitter such as bananas, pottery, fertilizers and tobacco or by actual radioactive material.

False alarms go with the job

In case they do come across a dangerous substance, the border guards inform the proper authorities, who then send out qualified personnel to the site. All this has to  happen swiftly. "The officers only have a couple of minutes to make up their minds," says Mayer. "On the one hand, they are not allowed to obstruct border traffic, but on the other hand they are responsible for ensuring safety."

Alarms set off by natural radiation sources are not uncommon during nuclear smuggling checks. Nonetheless, inspectors have to remain focused at all times. Miscalculations or improper checks can have deadly consequences.

EUSECTRA students inspect a car (Photo: Ralf Bosen)

Inspectors first need to determine the precise source of the radiation

Fear of nuclear terrorism

An ever-increasing number of security experts believe that preventing nuclear material from getting into the wrong hands has become one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. According to figures compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),  an increasing amount of radioactive material is turning up in unexpected places or simply going astray.

According to the agency, this development is due in part to the fact that more countries are checking their stockpiles more regularly and reporting their findings to the IAEA. Mayer believes that the September 11 attacks in the United States made security services think differently about the issue of nuclear proliferation. "A lot of states are now stepping up efforts to counter nuclear trafficking at all levels and the newly founded training center is contributing greatly to this cause," he says.

EUSECTRA students stand in front of measurement instruments (Photo: Ralf Bosen)

Trainees learn how to handle diverse measurement instruments

Training for different scenarios

The EU invested 2.3 million euros ($3 million) in the training facility located in Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen. The center consists of several laboratories, a training hall and an outdoor installation where students can train border inspections. "We also train for scenarios where police uncover the location of people assembling dirty bombs." These are bombs made from nuclear waste combined with conventional explosives that are capable of spreading radioactive material over a very wide area.

In the facility's main building students are trained to deal with scenarios in places such as the baggage conveyor belt of an airport or the workshop of a potential nuclear terrorist. With the help of different measurement instruments they also learn how to deal with small doses of actual nuclear material produced in Russia and the US. "We realized that our center could offer something that not only EU member states would be interested in, but also the IAEA and partners outside the EU."

Participants from around the globe

Since EUSECTRA opened in mid-April many seminars and training courses have taken place in the center. Participants have come from North and Central Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe. But no matter how different participants may be, they all have one thing in common: the hope that they can track down nuclear smugglers before it is too late.

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