"Nuclear and ideological materials are in countries around the world," Vann van Diepen, acting assistant secretary in charge of the U.S. State Department's bureau of international security and non-proliferation, remarked after two days of meetings here on fighting nuclear terrorism. "We're prepared to keep that materiel from falling into the wrong hands."
Quite obviously, he noted in understatement, "The consequences of nuclear terrorism are quite significant."
It's for that reason that more than 80 countries have banded together in what called a "Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism". Representatives from most of them gathered in this city, 150 kilometers south of Seoul, that's known as a center of scientific and nuclear research, to figure out what to do.
Although terrorists don't yet seem to have acquired the means to stage a nuclear attack, said Van Diepen, they're getting closer with the aid of operatives in a number of countries that don't seem all that anxious to keep them under control.
"The fact that these countries are not complying with obligations obviously has the potential for terrorism," he said. "Someone might give stuff to terrorists."
Fears of nuclear terrorism, like nuclear technology and warheads, have been proliferating ever since the demise of the Soviet empire two decades ago. The concern has been that some of those nukes, maybe not in Russia but in other countries that once formed the Soviet Union, may not be accounted for.
Those concerns went up swiftly when it became clear that Abdul Qadeer Khan, "father" of the Pakistan atomic bomb, was enriching himself by exporting nuclear technology around the Middle East and to North Korea. Khan, now free from years of prosecution and house arrest, may not be back in business, but who's to say what his disciples are up to?
Grigory Berdennikov, Russian ambassador-at-large, specializing on the issue of proliferation, was quite emphatic when it came to his own country. "In Russia there is no vulnerable nuclear materiel," he said, "but we are concerned that materiel is elsewhere." Certainly, "the network of A Q Khan is one example," he said, ignoring the issue of left-over nuclear warheads and other materiel in some of the Soviet Union's member states and satellites.
The vagueness of the experts' remarks, however, left open the question of how much they could really do in concert. Van Diepen, co-chairing the conference, was almost as circumspect as Berdennikov, the other co-chair.
"This is an urgent problem that demands a solution to combat terrorism," said Van Diepen, neglecting to give examples beyond Al Qaida as to who might be seriously looking for loose nukes.
The experts did agree in general terms, he said, on the need "to improve the ability to detect smuggling, to deter by punishment and to make sure we have the facilities in place".
That said, where do you go from there? The specter of North Korea's acquisition of technology from A Q Khan appeared to have been relegated to the status of history since Pakistan authorities in recent years have tried to appear cooperative when it came to nuclear security.
But what about the obvious fact that Osama bin Laden, until his assassination in March by a U.S. Navy SEAL team, was harbored on Pakistan soil with the connivance of collaborators at some official level? "Al Qaida has made it known they were interested in acquiring stuff," said Van Diepen. "It's a structural possibility."
Min Dong-seok, Korea's vice minister of foreign affairs, seemed considerably more alarmed, perhaps because of the proximity of North Korea to South Korea and the North's recurrent threats to "punish" the South.
"Chances that nuclear materials will be misused for malicious purpose are higher today than ever before due to inadequate control or protection measures," he said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, he went on, "reports more than 200 cases of illicit trafficking, theft and losses of nuclear and radioactive materials a year." Moreover, "risks associated with radioactive materials can be used to make a 'dirty bomb'" and are very pertinent threats as they are much more easily accessible in hospitals and laboratories."
And, he added, "the rising number of nuclear power plants around the world increases the possibility of sabotage of nuclear facilities".
The South Koreans were anxious to demonstrate the integrity of their own nuclear energy program amid persistent rumors over the years that some South Koreans harbor the desire to go from producing electricity to fabricating warheads.
Visitors were taken on an elaborate tour of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, including a look at a 30-megawatt experimental reactor that comes nowhere near the level of producing warheads. A sensitive issue, though, is whether the U.S. and South Korea, negotiating a new agreement on the South's nuclear energy program, can agree on South Korea's desire to get into pyro-processing, a technique for recycling spent nuclear fuel rods that could eventually be converted into stuff for warheads.
With 21 nuclear power plants already in operation, said Min Dojng-seok, the South plans to increase the number to 34 by 2024, enough to generate nearly half of the South's nuclear energy. He acknowledged, however, that the disaster at Japan's nuclear power plant at Fukushima after the earthquake and tsunami in November raised "the possibility that the same effect can be caused by terrorists purporting to sabotage nuclear facilities".
Unlike Van Diepen, Min focused on North Korea as a terrorist state rather than a mere proliferator.
"The potential danger of nuclear energy is well illustrated by North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons," he said, charging the North with working to "undermine the very basis of the non-proliferation regime" by withdrawing from the non-proliferation treaty, conducting nuclear tests and enriching uranium.
Representatives at the conference did not seem interested, though, in his call for "the international community" to present "a unified and resolute front" against North Korea's activities."
Van Diepen was careful to differentiate between the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the aims of terrorists. "This meeting was about stopping nuclear terrorism," he said, "and not about halting nuclear proliferation" — a distinction that might not be all that clear to everyone, notably the South Koreans.