VIENNA — An 89-nation conference on Friday approved a beefed-up treaty on protecting enriched uranium and other dangerous nuclear substances, a move that the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said would help prevent terrorism.
The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material originally obligated the 112 countries that accepted it to protect nuclear material during international transport. The amended version, which still has to be ratified by those countries, expands such protection to materials at nuclear facilities, in domestic storage and during domestic transport or use.
The IAEA said that under the toughened treaty, countries would work more closely to track down and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material and "mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage."
Conference approval is only the first step. The amended treaty enters into force only after ratification by at least two-thirds of the 112 nations, a process expected to take years.
Still, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei called it an "important step towards greater nuclear security by combating, preventing and ultimately punishing those who would engage in nuclear theft, sabotage and even terrorism."
ElBaradei, whose Vienna-based agency acts as the U.N. nuclear nonproliferation watchdog, said the agreement demonstrated "a global commitment to remedy weaknesses in our nuclear security regime."
The agreement comes amid disturbing revelations of continuing attempts to steal nuclear material, particularly in poorer countries with less developed security measures.
In the former Soviet republic of Georgia there have been four known incidents of attempted uranium smuggling over the last three or four years, said Soso Kakushadze, head of nuclear and radiation safety at Georgia's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Protection.
Although building a nuclear device is a complicated process, there are fears terrorists could easily construct a "dirty" bomb, which would use conventional explosives to spread radiation.