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Action urged over nuclear threat

Countries around the world are being urged to review security at nuclear plants  

VIENNA, Austria -- The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog has urged governments to "act quickly" to prevent any terrorist atomic attack.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told a special safety session in Vienna on Friday that a terrorist nuclear attack was more likely than previously thought.

The total disregard for human life in the September 11 suicide strikes on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon have alerted experts to the heightened threat of such an attack, he said.

Countries must move to protect their atomic installations and act to prevent nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorists, he added.

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ElBaradei said: "We need to act quickly to protect ourselves."

Experts from many of the 132 member states of the IAEA are attending the session, looking at how to protect installations.

France and the U.S. have stepped up security at sites, placing anti-aircraft batteries near some nuclear facilities, but it is unclear what measures the UK has taken.

ElBaradei said it is unclear whether terrorist groups have the capability of building a nuclear bomb, but warned that governments must act immediately to prevent it from happening.

"We don't have any information that al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organisation has nuclear material," he said. "We are not directing our attention against any particular terrorist group, just protecting against any possible attack."

Poorer nations need to protect their nuclear interests most, he added.

ElBaradei called on countries around the world to take a careful inventory of the security risks at their nuclear power plants and other facilities and to spend the money necessary to ensure they can prevent or withstand terrorist attacks.

Nuclear experts are especially worried that terrorists could obtain low-level radioactive material and construct a so-called "dirty bomb."

Unlike more sophisticated nuclear weapons, a "dirty bomb" is a crude device using radioactive material taken from industrial sites or hospitals and detonated by conventional explosives.

Founded in 1957, the agency sets world standards for nuclear safety and provides help to countries in case of a radiological disaster. The nuclear weapon programmes in the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states -- China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States -- are not subject to IAEA safeguards.

Neither are any that may exist in India, Pakistan and Israel, countries that have either tested or developed nuclear weapons, and are outside the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

ElBaradei pleaded for international unity in creating universal and stringent controls on nuclear materials.



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