OTTAWA, Ont. - The world needs to tighten nuclear security rules to ensure that terrorists or volatile states don't get their hands on dangerous materials or even atomic bombs, says a Canadian think-tank.
The Centre for International Governance Innovation singles out the Middle East as an area of concern, noting some countries may try to hedge their security bets by following Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The centre's report on the future of nuclear energy, released Thursday, says there are problems in keeping track of nuclear materials that have to be remedied. And, it warns developed countries to be wary about where they sell nuclear technology.
Louise Frechette, a veteran Canadian diplomat and distinguished fellow at the centre in Waterloo, Ont., said the potential for a nuclear terror attack can't be dismissed.
"There hasn't been a serious incident yet," she said. "The challenge is to make sure that there is never one."
Will there be one?
'I don't know, but it's not inconceivable at all."
Before 9-11, nuclear safety and the spread of nuclear weapons were the main concerns. Since then, the fear of misuse by terrorists is a major preoccupation.
The report suggests measures to lessen the risks, including giving the International Atomic Energy Agency - the world nuclear watchdog - more money and powers to promote security. There also needs to be more transparency to help the agency track nuclear materials because the existing system isn't good enough, it says.
"We're not quite sure what we know and don't know on the control of nuclear material across borders," Frechette said.
"The IAEA has a system to record reports of nuclear material lost and found and it's clearly a very incomplete record... It's hard to know how much of this stuff is being lost or appropriated by ill-intentioned people. There's not much transparency.
The report urges that the openness and peer review that applies in the nuclear safety field be extended to security issues.
"When it comes to nuclear security, the protection of nuclear installations, there you have international guidelines but that's pretty general," Frechette said. "There's merit in going further and applying some of the lessons learned in the safety side."
The report says developed countries must be wary of selling nuclear technology to poorer countries which may not have the infrastructure and stability to handle it safely, or which may secretly want nuclear weapons.
Trevor Findlay of the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance and author of the report, said many Middle East and Gulf states are tempted to follow Iran's lead in nuclear capability.
"There's a suspicion that countries in that region are looking at Iran and thinking, 'We should also have at least a peaceful nuclear fuel cycle just in case'." Findlay said. "This is the nuclear hedging idea - that one of the motivations would be to have the technology there just in case they want to move toward nuclear weapons.
"Iran is the perfect case study here. They claim everything they are doing is generating electricity for peaceful purposes."
Given the volatility of the region, Findlay said, "it starts to look like there's something happening in the Middle East that we really need to be very careful about."
A generation ago, Canada was caught by surprise when India used material from a Canadian reactor to build its first atomic bomb.
Security aside, the report dismisses suggestions the nuclear industry is due for a rebirth soon. It says significant expansion of nuclear energy is unlikely, at least over the next 20 years. The enormous costs, long lead times and changing energy use and distribution patterns all stack up against nuclear expansion, it concludes.
The report's authors studied key aspects of nuclear power, including security, safety and proliferation. It found the existing rules and standards wanting in all three areas.
U.S. President Barack Obama is to host an international summit on nuclear security in April and the report recommends that the meeting should take a hard look at the security of civilian reactors.
In the final analysis, the report says, the developed world must strike a bargain with developing countries seeking reactors. Those who aspire to obtain reactors must agree to the highest standards to avoid accidents, nuclear terrorism and weapons production.
If the developed nuclear powers want the newcomers to follow these rules, however, they must agree to a multilateral nuclear fuel-cycle system and to eventual disarmament. With a multilateral fuel system, not every country would have to develop sensitive recycling facilities for spent fuel, removing a potential source of weapons material.
Disarmament would end the contradiction in which some states reserve a right to nuclear weapons forever, while others must renounce that right forever.