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An expanding EU confronts nuclear proliferation

The capture of nuclear materials in Slovakia last week raises security questions about borderless travel.

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The capture of over a pound of powderized uranium in Slovakia last week has served as a sharp reminder to Europe, though nuclear experts have cast doubt on the assertion by local law-enforcement officials that terrorists could have used it for a "dirty bomb."

The incident comes just weeks before Slovakia, Hungary, and seven other recent European Union inductees _ some of which are former Soviet states – join the passport-free Schengen zone on Dec. 21. As the EU's borderless travel area expands, the arrest has brought renewed attention to unsecured nuclear material from former Soviet states.

"We seem to be immune to understanding that this is worrisome, [saying] 'Oh well, it's not enough for a nuclear weapon, or radioactive enough for a dirty bomb,'" says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "Enriched uranium at any level is a worry; even if low-enriched uranium, it should be a wake-up call of the danger that someone who might be covertly enriching to make a bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium could get a hold of this as fresh feed to accelerate their enrichment efforts."

With the Schengen expansion, Western European countries will suddenly become more dependent on their former cold-war adversaries for nuclear security. Once an individual crosses, for example, the Slovak-Ukrainian border, he or she is unlikely to face passport controls anywhere in the western half of the continent.

Still, Schengen membership may actually help secure nuclear materials, says Vitaly Fedchenko, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "It won't be that Slovakia is on its own," he says. "Slovakia could and should tap into EU expertise and further financial resources to help shield the border. It's also in the interest of the EU, obviously."


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