The International Atomic Energy Agency spearheads the nonproliferation community, but the U.N.-chartered body must deal with increased responsibilities during a period of tight budgets, said Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency's director general.
"This situation, if continued, will inevitably undermine the Agency's ability to conduct credible verification," ElBaradei told the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference. The agency's inspectors are ready to begin checking suspected Iraqi nuclear facilities as early as next month, he said.
Additional resources are heading to the IAEA, particularly from the United States, said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. The agency's projects are invaluable in contributing to the nation's "highest priority" of identifying and protecting radiological sources around the world, he told the conference.
"Under my direction, the department has made significant voluntary contributions, totaling millions of dollars, to help the IAEA fulfill its mission," Abraham said. "It's foolhardy, in my opinion, to do otherwise. The civilized nations of the worlds must come together to address these threats."
As part of that effort, the DOE and IAEA will jointly sponsor an international convention on radiological dispersal devices, otherwise known as "dirty bombs," in March 2003 in Vienna, Abraham said. The G-8 group of nations is also assembling a $20 billion package for nonproliferation efforts.
The global community needs to understand the proliferation threat has morphed from just rogue states to terrorist organizations, Abraham told conference attendees. The necessary response involves more than increasing security around nuclear materials -- stronger border monitoring and programs to transform weapons-grade material into fuel are some other actions to take, he said.
"The margin for error is small," Abraham said. "Even a little success in smuggling or theft can have a great impact ... only a relatively small amount of highly enriched uranium is enough for a nuclear weapon; the amount needed for a dirty bomb is even less."
The U.S. focus on Russian material is proper, according to Abraham, given the massive post-Soviet Union nuclear infrastructure that remains. The two countries are ahead of schedule on some material reduction agreements, and the three remaining Russian power reactors that create plutonium will soon be shut down with U.S. help. Programs are also in place to accelerate the shutdown of Soviet-supported research reactors in 17 countries, he said.
"Despite the enormity of the challenge, success is possible," Abraham said. "I have no illusions that such a day is around the corner, but I do believe that through cooperation it is eventually attainable."
Such programs have demonstrated successes, but more still needs to be done, said retired U.S. senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. He agreed with Abraham on the need for increased IAEA funding, but said a key missing element of global nonproliferation is an accurate accounting of U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons, the most likely type of device to be stolen.
The G-8's initiative also is welcome, Nunn told attendees, but other countries should keep pressure on the group to prevent the issue from falling off the global agenda. Perhaps next year's G-8 meeting in France will produce concrete steps towards securing the world's most vulnerable sources, he said. Nunn pointed out his nonproliferation allies in the Senate -- Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M. -- will head committees vital to keeping the issue prominent in the upcoming session of Congress.
Abandoning nuclear power is not an option as society tries to reach an emissions-free economy, Nunn said, especially for fast-growing nations such as China and India.
The conference, run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focused on efforts to curb the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missile delivery systems.