A brief, but alarming, dispatch from the US embassy in Sana’a emerged this weekend, outlining the lax conditions under which radioactive materials are guarded in Yemen. According to a cable written earlier this year and published by the Guardian on Sunday afternoon, “The lone security guard standing watch at Yemen's main radioactive materials storage facility was removed from his post on December 30, 2009, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX.” In his place? A single “closed-circuit television security camera [which] broke six months ago and was never fixed.”
While it is unclear who, exactly, XXXXXXXXXXXX might be, they were sufficiently worried about the unguarded storage facility to plead with the United States “to help convince the [government of Yemen] to remove all materials from the country until they can be better secured, or immediately improve security measures at the NAEC facility.” The cable reports that the unidentified source warned US authorities that “Very little now stands between the bad guys and Yemen's nuclear material.”
The facility under question held
various radioactive materials, small amounts of which are used by local universities for agricultural research, by a Sana'a hospital, and by international oilfield services companies for well-logging equipment spread out across the country.
While these stockpiles would be useless to those seeking to build a nuclear bomb, they are nonetheless of interest to mischief makers keen to cause large scale disaster. Speaking with the Guardian, Harvard University’s Matthew Bunn points out that materials such as those discussed in the cable
could make a very nasty dirty bomb capable of contaminating a wide area... enough to make a mess that would cost tens of billions of dollars in cleanup costs and economic disruption, with all sorts of controversy over how clean is clean, how will people go back there.
The Yemen cable offer at least the second disturbing report in recent weeks of potentially harmful materials being exposed to possible capture by non-state actors. In late November, the Atlantic’s Max Fisher detailed a previously unreported US-Russian standoff with Libya during the closing weeks of 2009. Fisher’s reporting was later backed-up by cables released by WikiLeaks (and very strangely reported as fresh news by the New York Times a week later with absolutely zero acknowledgment of the Atlantic’s scoop).
In the case of the Yemeni stockpile, the more recent embassy cable notes that Yemen’s “Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told the Ambassador on January 7 that no radioactive material was currently stored in Sana'a and that all ‘radioactive waste’ was shipped to Syria.” Cold comfort to be sure, especially in light of other WikiLeaks documents—for starters, see here, here, and here—demonstrating the ease with which dangerous materials can be had by just about anyone who wants them.