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Nuke watch: The game's getting tougher

The UN watchdog hosted a major symposium this week on enhancing nuclear safeguards and verification.

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While international attention is focused on the nuclear challenge posed by North Korea and Iran, the world's top nuclear watchdog warned this week that the situation could be much worse in the future.

"Another 20 to 30 states" could one day "have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short span of time," said Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In the fine print is a sobering fact: If any nation were bent on secretly pursuing such weapons, there's no guarantee the IAEA would detect it.

"Can they prove it 100 percent? No, because you can't prove a negative – that a country doesn't have weapons," says James Acton, a researcher at the Verification Research, Training and Information Center in London. "All they can do is provide 'credible assurance' that there aren't secret nuclear activities."

But given the IAEA's record of being deceived by Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, the organization has sometimes had trouble establishing the credibility of such assurances in recent years – most notably in the face of American claims in 2002-03 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Though the US failure to find WMD seemed to vindicate earlier IAEA conclusions, the 500 top industry experts gathered in Vienna this week for a major symposium on enhancing nuclear safeguards and verification seem to agree that there's plenty of room for improvement.

Since its inception nearly half a century ago, the IAEA – whose $130 million inspections budget Mr. ElBaradei has likened to that of the Vienna police department – has struggled to adapt to the changing nature of the nuclear threat. When it was created, nuclear programs were much larger – in size and cost – and thus more readily detectable. Now, the situation is different, thanks to modern technology.

"It's easier to hide than to find a covert nuclear-weapon program," says Henry Sokolsky, who served as deputy for nonproliferation policy under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. "The bad news is the bomb is small, requires a small amount of nuclear material, and you can make the activities small enough to hide."

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