The world's nuclear detective: the case file on IAEA's Khammar Mrabit
November 15th, 2011
07:07 AM ET

The world's nuclear detective: the case file on IAEA's Khammar Mrabit

Dr. Khammar Mrabit, Director, IAEA Office of Nuclear Security

By Senior National Security Producer Suzanne Kelly

Editor's note: This is part of a Security Clearance series, Case File. CNN Senior National Security Producer Suzanne Kelly profiles key members of the security and intelligence community.

With potential targets all over the world, business is good for the world's top nuclear detective.

As director of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Nuclear Security Office, Moroccan-born nuclear expert Khammar Mrabit helps nations prevent, detect and respond to the theft of nuclear and other radioactive material. He also helps identify acts of sabotage and monitors the illicit trafficking of such material.

Don't confuse him with the non-proliferation arm of the IAEA, which monitors how countries are using their nuclear materials for peaceful purposes. Mrabit's mission is to keep nuclear and radiological material out of the hands of terrorists.

According to the IAEA, there are 433 nuclear power plants in operation globally and more than 240 operational nuclear research reactors. More than half of those research reactors use highly enriched uranium (HEU), the material needed to make a nuclear bomb. In addition, there are literally hundreds of thousands of radioactive sources, some of which are not always accounted for or well protected.

"All of this material could be a target for nuclear terrorists," says Mrabit. "Or it could be used for malicious acts."

The IAEA began tracking missing radioactive and nuclear material in 1995 using the Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB). By the end of last year, officials had logged more than 1,980 confirmed "incidents" where nuclear material such as uranium, plutonium, and thorium, or radioactive material, or even contaminated material, had gone missing. And that's just the stuff they know about.

Because reporting incidents to the IAEA is voluntary, Mrabit and his team often find themselves engaged in "open records" sleuthing, combing through news reports and other readily available information that might signify a problem. He and his team look for anything that could indicate the theft of nuclear materials, or any intentional attempts to sell HEU.

On the less intense days, they find themselves engaged in lost-and-found missions, where material goes missing, but is later recovered. The work is never boring.

By the end of 2010, the IAEA recorded 365 incidents involving the unauthorized possession of materials, 522 incidents of theft or loss, and 981 "unauthorized" activities and events.

Of those incidents, 12 were identified as involving the unauthorized possession of highly enriched uranium, or were determined to be related to criminal activities.

On one hand, that represents just 1% of the incidents reported last year. On the other, it only takes one event to cause a catastrophe.

Because of its specific use in nuclear weapons, securing the world's supply of HEU is Mrabit's biggest concern, but there are other materials like those used in the manufacture of a "dirty bomb" that, if in the wrong hands, could also have a broad and costly impact. While the detonation of a dirty bomb likely wouldn't kill large numbers of people, it would inflict serious damage to the environment, and would likely force a lengthy and costly clean up.

"If a terrorist group managed to detonate a 'radiological dispersal device, or the so called 'dirty bomb' in an urban area, the result would not be nearly as devastating as a nuclear explosion. It would, however, cause mass panic, widespread contamination and major economic and social disruption," says Mrabit.

Finding the material needed to build a dirty bomb is often easier than finding enriched materials, which makes the Office of Nuclear Security's prevention function that much more important. Sometimes the toughest part of Mrabit's job though, is convincing countries that they need his help. His team has identified more than 100 sites in 30 nations where installations that housed nuclear or radioactive materials were not adequately protected and needed physical protection upgrades.

"Some countries might think that for them, the threat of nuclear terrorism is insignificant and ... if there are weak links in the chain, you know, bad guys would learn about them," says Mrabit. "Bad guys, terrorists, work without borders, they can move freely and get radioactive sources to be used for malicious means."

Offering assistance to help countries secure those sites is a big part of the Office of Nuclear Security's mission. Sometimes securing sites means sending potentially dangerous material back to where it came from. That's happened in more than a hundred cases where Mrabit's team determined that the security measures employed by some states were simply unacceptable.

"We repatriated more than 170 radioactive sources and sent them back to the supplier countries because those countries did not have adequate nuclear security structures," says Mrabit. "Imagine if these sources could somehow fall into the wrong hands. If they could really get control over these sources and use them for malicious acts, that would create a lot of problems."

Mrabit has spent more than 28 years working in the field of nuclear safety and security. He joined the IAEA in 1986, just as a serious nuclear contamination incident was unfolding in central Brazil.

According to an IAEA report, a private radiotherapy in the country had moved to a new location, leaving behind a caesium-137 tele-therapy unit. Not realizing what they had stumbled on, a pair of looters made off with the source capsule for the radiation head of a machine, taking with them caesium chloride salt, a highly- radioactive source that also happens to be easily dispersed.

In the end, 271 people were contaminated, and eight of them developed acute radiation syndrome. Four of them were dead within a month. It was one of the most serious radiological events to date, and prompted a massive clean up effort that stretched well beyond six months and cost close to $20 million.

What happened in that case may have been an accident but it left an impression on Mrabit, who still imagines the damage that could have occurred had that material fallen into the hands of someone with more malicious intent.

Preventing such an attack has become a personal mission, which is also one of the reasons why his office works with countries as they prepare to host significant public events, like the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, or the more recent 2010 FIFA Football World Cup in South Africa.

"It's a must," says Mrabit, "to make this world more secure than before."


Filed under: Case File • IAEA • Morocco • Nuclear • Terrorism
soundoff (20 Responses)
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    July 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  2. xleland

    If this guy Mrabit is as good as his title suggests, maybe he can tell us all where the radioactive iodine 131 is coming from as it floats through Europe, today.

    November 16, 2011 at 11:21 am | Reply
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  5. Mark

    I hope the subject "nuclear expert" didn't provide the photo for the story. The label is filled out incorrectly, with a number without units provided for the quantity of activity. See 49CFR172.403(g)(2).

    November 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  6. JOE

    @aiden

    I Totally agree with everything you have stated but given American politics and the phobia factor in wanting to protect Israel, etc the US will never allow Iran to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. Your example of Pakistan and India both having nuclear weapons and maintaining a sort of cold war is a good indication that a nuclear Iran would not try to be different to Pakistan or India. But again, as the leader of the free world and world superpower, there's a delemma for the US not to intervene. Its just a tough call I guess!

    November 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  7. aizen

    even if iran developed nukes, they will never dare giving it to the such of hezbollah etc..this is unfounded fear, as we can take pakistan as an example. they could give the terrorist the bomb and let them unleash it to india but they are not stupid and iran is the same. they know that if they tried that, they will be wiped out so why risk it??? personally im not worried for them acquiring nukes...there are countries out there that are worse such as north korea, pakistan. i think it will bring balance in that area as this is all caused by the feeling of being surrounded by the usa and their bases everywhere in the arab peninsula and also looking for a balance in the region where israel is guaranteed to destroy everyone in a case of conflict like we have seen so many time. as for their claim to wipe out israel, those are just overblown statement, i would like to see them try, not because i support israel but because i would never allow another human try to wipe out another, just like we went after hitler like he was going out of style. the whole world will deal with them hardcore. let them have it and see how hard it is to maintain them and costly.

    November 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • joe

      @aizen You are either a researcher from Rand corp, or Ahmadinajad is your brother privy to all that knowledge what would Iran do. There is huge difference between India and Israel and Iran. The first two are not trying to become martyrs. There is another choice to describe you, but for now, let's keep it civil.

      November 15, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  8. JOE

    @ Alex

    Very informative! Thanks!

    November 15, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  9. Adam Balm

    I cannot even fathom what would happen if Iran were to complete their desired development of a nuclear warhead. I mean seriously now, think about it. Can you even begin to imagine Hamas and Hezbollah with nuclear weapons at their disposal?? And for those of you that are uneducated, Hamas and Hezbollah are the equivalent to what we know here as al Qaeda – two terrorist organizations that would stop at nothing to detonate a nuclear device either in the Holy Land or even here, right in our own backyard. This would be a catastrophe like no other we've ever imagined. That is why Iran NEEDS TO BE STOPPED ASAP !!!!

    November 15, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
    • bob

      *sigh*
      your post is so naive i dont know where to start.
      what makes you think hamas wants to nuke the united states? if you ahd even the first clue of what you were talking about you would know that the various palestinian organizations have historically reached out to the united states and tried to AID us. not only are they cooperative partners in our war on terror, but as an example, the PLO tried to warn the CIA of the bombing of pan am 101 over lockerbie.

      but this ignores the fact – why would iran give a nuke to hamas? iran's nuclear program has cost the country not only billions in direct cost but signifgant sanctions against the nation of iran. that sounds like an awful lot for a country to go through just to give away some nukes, doesnt it?

      now to the meat and potatoes of your post. iran. you claim iran wants to build nukes. back in 1968 iran was given a small nuclear reactor by the united states under the atoms for peace initiative. this research reactor is basically the same tool that was used by isreal, north korea, pakistan and india to join the nuclear club. as an example, in israels case they 'mysteriously' built the reactors cooling system to a specification 3x the needed size. why? the higher power you run your reactor, the longer you run your reactor – the more plutonium it produces. if iran wanted they could produce enough plutonium for a bomb with this reactor every year. multiply that by 3 or 4 if they did the same upgrades the isrealis did to their reactor. how has iran used this reactor since '68? they CONSISTANTLY run their reactor at about 7% of it's rated capacity. in other words they actually use their reactor for exactly what it's intended to be used for. civilian purposes. this consistant, peaceful use of nuclear technology has been shown via iran's aCTIONS for nearly half a century now. *if* they wanted a bomb so bad they could have had one. last month, last year, or 10 years ago. they could have had an ARSENAL of nukes 10 years ago. but yet you want to claim they arent going to use this tool that was given to then half a century ago, and instead are going to invest billions of dollars and act under the watchful eye of the iaea to try and develop the technology to enrich uranium to build bombs? why? there is ZERO logic there.

      November 16, 2011 at 5:25 am | Reply
  10. JOE

    @AA

    Then if during the war in the Pacific the US didn't know for sure the magnitude of destruction such a bomb could have cause, I just wondered why we used it on a civilian population as opposed to a military installation. Yes, I agree that war is a horrific thing to behold but as I can recall, our declaration of war against the Japanese was because of their attack on a military base at Pearl Harbor. Let's face it, the Japanese could have easily attacked and bombed the city of San Francisco but they chose a military site instead. I'm not condoning what they did but there's a big difference here between Pearl Harbor and Heroshima and Nagasaki.

    Furthermore, there's a controversial report that has lingered for decades pointing to the fact the US had been notified in advance of a surrender by the Japanese government to the Soviet Union. Therefore I believe that a lot of facts have been unclair as to why we actually used the bomb. There is also a report that circulated around the contention that our government dropped the bomb simply to see the nature of destruction it could imposed. But the reality is that we knew of the destruction it could have caused simply because the H-bomb had been tested numerous times at Los Alamos. This is why I personally believe that all nations including the US and Russia should abolish nuclear weapons entirely.

    November 15, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • Alex

      I mostly agree with everything except "I personally believe that all nations including the US and Russia should abolish nuclear weapons entirely" - as a matter of fact, there is a huge imbalance in conventional weapons. Why don't we bring the size of US Navy to a level reasonably sufficient to the defense of the United States first, before talking about abolishing nuclear weapons? Specifically I am talking about permanent decommissioning of 9 out of 11 aircraft carrier battle groups. This will make it easier for US taxpayers too.

      ...And only after that we can start talking about abolishing nuclear weapons.

      November 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • Devon

      Joe, because that was the only way the war would end and it would've saved thousands more American lives. Giving up isn't in Japanese culture. They'll fight until they die and even give their lives for their country and the war, with an example being kamikazes. Plus, a lot of their military bases had been bombed to bits anyway and bombing a civilian city would be an element of surprise since the Japanese didn't expect it. And on top of that, Hiroshima did have some importance to the war so it wasn't a totally innocent city. The Japanese saw a plane on radar but didn't do anything about it since there were only a couple and it wasn't going to be an airstrike. But in the end, the Japanese would've totally crumbled had they not surrendered and they weren't going to surrender as soon as they did had we not bombed them, so it strategically made sense.

      November 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • JustinFromNJ

      Sorry JOE, but you are wrong on several key points.

      The Japanese could not have "easily attacked and bombed the city of San Francisco". They barely were able to pull off the attack on Pearl Harbor because of Hawaii's (relative) closeness to Asia compared to the mainland United States. Japan did not choose a military target over a civilian target, they chose the only feasible target they had. And do not forget that Pearl Harbor had a significant number of civilians and non-combatants.

      A single report (which I am unable to even find at all) stating that Japan might have surrendered to the Soviets before the United States dropped the atomic bombs means nothing. Besides, Japan used misdirection in the weeks prior to their attack on Pearl Harbor, with "peace talks" they set up to make us think that they were not planning an attack to wipe out the Pacific Fleet.

      H-bombs were not used on Japan. They were atomic bombs.

      Numerous tests were not performed prior to dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only one bomb was tested, just days earlier.

      November 15, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • Post

      The US purposefully refrained from bombing certain Japanese cities toward the end of the war so that it could better test the effects of the atomic bomb on an untainted "control" group, i.e. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The documents sent by certain Cabinet members is on display in the Hiroshima Peace Museum. The Japanese had already come to surrender terms with the Soviets, with the only condition that the Emperor remain as the deified head of State Shintoism. Yes, Hiroshima had a few munitions factories, but the US was considering bombing Kyoto, until a Japanese professor advising the US government pleaded with them to preserve the city, which is the cultural and historical capitol of Japan. Kyoto had next to no role in the war, except as a site for the Emperor's summer retreat and as a symbol of national cultural identity. The Japanese were ready to surrender, and Hiroshima and especially Nagasaki were unnecessary. I'm not apologizing for the Japanese; they were terrible during the war (see the massacres of Nanjing and Manila), but the US were no angels either (see firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Kobe, etc.). We let off several class A Japanese war criminals that conducted ruthless biological and chemical experiments on civilians and POWs in order to obtain their data. Fact is, we bombed H and N because we knew that the cold war battle lines were already being drawn, and we wanted as big a pie piece as possible over the Soviets, who by the way sacrificed much more during the war than we did. And the Enola Gay is still enshrined in the National Air and Space Museum. Then again, a kamikaze plane is also displayed in the war museum in Kure, the military port about 30 miles from Hiroshima. People are stupid.

      November 16, 2011 at 2:35 am | Reply
  11. JOE

    So how do we DEFINE or DETERMINE which countries are legally fit to possess nuclear weapons and which countries are not? Is there some type of international law that says that Israel for example has an inherent right to possess nuclear weapons and Iran does not? I don't mean to be rude or disrespectful, I just don't inderstand the difference here. And if the goal of this agency is to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists, how do we go about defining which governments are terrorist and which are not?

    I believe that the only country in the history of the world to have used nuclear weapons on a civilian population is the United States which dropped the Atomic bomb on Heroshima and Nagasaki during WWII. So should we be the ones decidiing which countries are fit to possess nuclear weapons or which countries are a risk of using nuclear weapons on civilians? And to my knowledge, the only country in the world to have sold nuclear technology to an oppressive regime was the Israeli government which sold its nuclear technology to the apartheid government of South Africa in the 1970's. So my question here is how do we go about defining which countries are fit to possess nuclear weapons and which are not? Again, I don't mean to be rude or disrespectful, I'm just confused.

    November 15, 2011 at 9:25 am | Reply
    • AA

      Dear innocent Joe:
      The USA went after the bomb during WAR conditions, and these were used to impose our will on japanes fanaticals, hellbent on not surrendering after the war was over in Europe. The invasion would have caused many allies lives due to the fighting of an invasion. D day was a painful reminder. The fact that civilians were slughtered, was not, by any means the monopoly of the USA that went to a war only after being attacked. Nobody knew for sure the repercussions of a bomb of this nature, or even if it was going to work at all!
      We had only 2 bombs and the enemy didn't know that. They thought that more were coming their way, so among other thing, the signed the instrument of surrender.
      The rosenbergs traitors and others released the secrets of this to the USSR and the cold war started. Yes by socialist/commies.
      The USA is the only power on earth that should be in charge of determining who should have the weapon or not. We know the destructive power of it and we have no desire to use it. That was used in WAR, last resort, and invented during one.
      iran wants the bomb to wield power thinking that this will allow them to escape international responsibilities, and they have threatened to anhilate another country on a regular basis. Their hate towards other countries on the planet is ehacerbated every friday after mosque prayers, with them praying and chanting Deat to America, Death to Israel, and death to whoever hints to critizice any of their demands. That regime is not stable, since its inception, and does not respect the international community, and they can't. This regime put its alligience to a god that does not recognize international treaties and just decency among Nations.

      November 15, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply
      • Alex

        Thank, you AA, you made it very clear. The diagnosis is paranoia, there is no doubt about it.

        At first, people who have created the bomb were physicists from Europe, mostly Italy (Enrico Fermi,
        etc..), Germany (Hans Bethe, Klaus Fuchs, etc..), Hungary (Ed Teller, etc..) Polland (Stanislaw Ulam).
        All of whom view their mission as fight against nazism. Approximately all of them had some sort of
        jewish background. With the exception of Ed Teller, almost all of them were communist sympathizers.
        Communist sympathies of Robert Oppenheimer were not secred from anyone.

        Just face it: no communists ==> no bomb.

        Secondly, people like Klaus Fuchs whom you may consider like traitor are not traitor at all. Face it.
        He was a German, antifashist, and basically an open communist: his sympathies toward Soviet Union
        were not secret from anyone. He went there and helped to build the bomb to fight nazism. Then later
        he was told that Soviets are evil. This is not what he signed up for. He passed some information to
        Soviets - most likely just a single sentence "go straight to implosion device, do not bother with gun
        assembly" (indeed, there was no indication that Soviets were working on a gun-assembly projects: may
        be it is due to the credit of Fuchs, or may be they figured out it themselves). He also may be he passed
        some ideas about his polonium initiator, but this is we do not know that for sure.

        Klaus Fuchs did not sign up for Cold War against Soviet Union, instead it was him who was betrayed.

        As for the Rosenbergs, Greenglass, etc, I do not believe that they had passed anything of significance
        because they were not scientists, did not understand the physics, and even today there is no any
        specific disclosure about the substance of what kind of information they passed or may have pass.
        Most likely they were make scapegoats - just because American people feel betrayed and wanted
        someone to be executed for that. Does not matter whom.

        Lastly, the atomic bomb was used against Japan to force it to capitulate to US VERY QUICKLY.
        We often hear that this saved american lifes, and even Japanese lifes. This is true. But this is only
        partially true. The reality is that the bulk of this war took place in Indochina continent. USA is
        credited with two episodes which had significant ground troop involvement - battle of Iwo Jima
        in March 1945, and battle for Okinawa in April–June 1945. While these two were major operations
        by US standards, they were nowhere close by the number of troops involved to the scale of war
        which took place on the Indochina continent at that time. With the entrance of Soviet Union into
        the war against Japan (over 1.5 million troops against 1.2 million Japanese Kwantung army - now
        you should realize that Iwo Jima and Okinawa were relatively minor events) US wanted Japan to
        capitulate very quickly to avoid inconvenience of Soviet involvement and influence in the post war
        Japan. IT IS THIS AND ONLY THIS WANT THE ATOMIC BOMBING OF JAPAN WAS ABOUT: if
        there were no bombing, Japanese Kwantung Army would be collapsing under Soviet advancement
        any way, and that also activated Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese fight against Japan, but the
        political outcome of that war and the shape of post-war Asia would be different.

        November 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  12. Ramos Ferdinand

    The world does not have 200 FUSION reactors. Actually there are none. Perhaps the author was referring to research reactors and reactors that produce medical isotopes and use HEU asfuel.

    November 15, 2011 at 8:47 am | Reply

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