International researchers have compiled what they say is the world's most complete database of lost, stolen and misplaced nuclear material -- depicting a world awash in weapons-grade uranium and plutonium that nobody can account for.
"It truly is frightening," Lyudmila Zaitseva, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies, said on Wednesday. "I think this is the tip of the iceberg."
Stanford announced its database as US senators held a hearing in Washington to assess the threat of "dirty bombs," or radioactive material dispersed by conventional explosives.
The Stanford program, dubbed the Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources, is intended to help governments and international agencies track wayward nuclear material worldwide, supplementing existing national programs that often fail to share data.
The project took on added urgency following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which spurred fears that extremists might seek to use nuclear weapons in the future.
"It blows the mind, the lack of information," said George Bunn, a veteran arms control negotiator and a member of the database group. "What we're trying to say is: `What are the facts?'"
The facts are chilling.
Zaitseva said that at least 40kg of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium had been stolen from poorly protected nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union. While most of this material subsequently was retrieved, at least 2kg of highly enriched uranium stolen from a reactor in Georgia remains missing.
Other thefts have included several fuel rods that disappeared from a research reactor in the Congo in the mid-1990s. While one of these fuel rods later resurfaced in Italy -- reportedly in the hands of the Mafia -- the other has not been found.
The Stanford group, led by nuclear physicist and arms control researcher Friedrich Steinhausler, decided to form its database after becoming alarmed over the patchy nature of most of the available information.