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N-terror: 'Clear and present danger'

By CNN's Diana Muriel

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Could nuclear facilities and re-processing plants become potential targets for a terrorist attack?

The events of September 11 demonstrated just how easy it would be to cause a major disaster at a nuclear installation such as Britain's Sellafield re-processing plant.

"An aerial attack by jumbo jet was not really considered part of the security threat in the past," says Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was meeting in Vienna on Friday for a special session on the prospect of nuclear terrorism.

"I mean, we have taken care of threats emanating from sabotage, theft, natural causes like earthquake or hurricane -- but we did not take into the engineering analysis the possibility of an aerial attack by a large aircraft."

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That is something the U.N.-funded IAEA plans to address as part of a programme to better protect the world's 438 nuclear power reactors. Early estimates put the cost at $50 million a year.

Individual governments have already moved to tighten nuclear security.

France has installed anti-aircraft batteries around the nuclear re-processing plant at La Hague in northwest France.

The United States has, for now, banned planes from flying low and close to the country's 103 nuclear power plants.

But the IAEA says that won't eliminate the threat.

"I think we have cooperation from the entire international community. I mean they have come to realise that nuclear terrorism is not just a remote possibility -- it's a clear and present danger," says ElBaradei.

The danger is made worse by the 380 recorded cases of illicit trafficking in radioactive materials since 1993, according to the IAEA.

Experts agree that if terrorists were to get hold of nuclear material, they could turn it into a potentially devastating weapon.

Britain's Sellafield re-processing plant could be the scene of a nuclear disaster  

"It would be relatively easy for any terrorist group or rogue state to misuse nuclear materials, not as a nuclear bomb but as what's called a dirty bomb, where you mix the materials with conventional explosives," says Mark Johnston of Greenpeace.

"Setting that off in a city centre would cause widespread contamination. The city centre couldn't be used for decades afterwards.

The victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident are still living with the effects of that disaster 15 years later.

The consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack, experts say, could be on a similar scale.



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