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Ensuring the Security of Radioactive Sources: National and Global Responsibilities

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For most of human existence, people were unaware of the powerful nuclear forces deep inside atoms, although they were exposed to natural background radiation derived from these forces. Not until the end of the 19th century did the first “nuclear scientists,” notably Henri Becquerel and Marie and Pierre Curie, discover energetic rays emanating from certain types of atoms due to these forces. Coining the term radioactivity to describe these energetic rays, the husband and wife team of the Curies were soon discovering new radioactive elements, in particular, polonium, named after Marie’s native Poland, and radium, named after radioactivity. By painstakingly sifting through hundreds of tons of uranium ore, the Curies isolated grams’ worth of radium and analyzed radium’s radiation.

Not until the development of nuclear reactors in the 1950s to make radioactive materials for research and commercial purposes was naturally occurring radium eclipsed by artificially produced radioactive materials. In the early decades of nuclear science, radium seemed like a miraculous material, and many commercial applications were sought and found. For example, paint laced with radium was applied to watches to make glow-in-the-dark watch dials. But this usage also demonstrated radium’s dark side when numerous young women who had painted on the radium by wetting the tip of the brush with their tongues eventually developed cancers. The lessons learned from the earliest decades of nuclear science have led to the development of increasingly high standards for the safe and secure use of these materials that have provided benefits to billions of people worldwide.

In this paper, Charles Ferguson (Federation of American Scientists) examines the national and international efforts to control and secure radioactive materials. He discusses the science of radiation and radioactive materials while assessing the potential security threats they pose, and offers suggestions for how to reduce the risk of radiological terrorism both for inclusion in the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit and beyond.

Charles D. Ferguson has been the president of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) since January 1, 2010. Ten years prior to this appointment, he worked for FAS on nuclear proliferation and arms control issues as a senior research analyst and director of the nuclear policy project. He previously worked at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as the project director of the Independent Task Force on US Nuclear Weapons Policy, chaired by William J. Perry and Brent Scowcroft, and as an adjunct professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University until January 2012. From 2002 to 2004, Dr. Ferguson was with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) as a scientist-in-residence, and has also consulted with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and the National Nuclear Security Administration. From 2000 to 2002, he served as a physical scientist in the Office of the Senior Coordinator for Nuclear Safety at the US Department of State, where he helped develop US government policies on nuclear safety and security issues. His most recent book, Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know, was published in May 2011 by Oxford University Press.

After graduating with distinction from the United States Naval Academy, he served as an officer on a fleet ballistic missile submarine and studied nuclear engineering at the Naval Nuclear Power School. He received his undergraduate degree in physics from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, also in physics, from Boston University in Massachusetts.

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