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."