Published online 8 May 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news070508-2

News

Have you seen any nuclear material?

Pakistan places advertisements regarding 'misplaced' isotopes.

Do you recognize this symbol? This advertisement aims to raise public awareness about any 'lost' nuclear material.Do you recognize this symbol? This advertisement aims to raise public awareness about any 'lost' nuclear material.

A Pakistani public information campaign about what to do if you stumble across stray radioactive material is raising hairs on the necks of Western arms control experts.

The ads, which appeared last week in several Urdu-language newspapers, featured the large, yellow radiation symbol and a warning to report any lost or misplaced isotopes.

"As public education campaigns go, it's unique," says Jeffrey Lewis, director of nuclear strategy and nonproliferation at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. Lewis says he was "shocked" to hear of the announcements.

Pakistan has never lost nuclear material per se, but it has a poor track record of protecting its nuclear technology. The father of its nuclear weapons programme, A.Q. Khan, is notorious for having sold the nation's secrets on the black market. Last week, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, released a report suggesting that Khan had been involved in selling nuclear secrets to Iran, in addition to North Korea and Libya.

Pakistan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority played down the significance of the ads. "No radioactive source has been stolen, lost or missed," spokesman Zaheer Ayub Baig told news@nature.com via e-mail. Baig says that the newspaper ads were simply meant to warn citizens about old medical and industrial sources that may have been lost before the founding of the nation a half-century ago. He adds that in coming weeks, advertisements will also appear in regional and English-language papers.

ADVERTISEMENT

Lost radioactive materials, often called "orphan sources," can pose a risk to public health. In 1987, an abandoned canister of caesium-137 found in a Brazilian scrap yard led to the contamination of over 244 people. And the problem is not confined to the developing world. In March, a container of yellowcake uranium turned up in a Los Angeles area pawn shop. Yellowcake is not considered dangerous, but the store owner nevertheless called authorities.

Lewis says that the cultural stigma surrounding radiation in the West, and the relative infrequency with which sources are lost, makes the need for such advertising campaigns largely unnecessary. In Pakistan, he imagines, it might well make sense to place such an ad. But given the country's difficult history, it doesn't inspire confidence, he says. "It's having to do it in the first place that's suspicious."

Visit our youseenanynuclear_mate.html">newsblog to read and post comments about this story.  

Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority