WASHINGTON – The number of experts who believe that terrorists could obtain the apparatus for a nuclear bomb is impressive and growing.

The 9/11 Commission described in 2004 the relative ease with which terrorists could conceal the needed weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium, which it said would be “about the size of a grapefruit or an orange.”

Since 2001, law enforcement officials have developed training exercises on how terrorists might smuggle eight components for an improvised 10-kiloton bomb into the United States and then detonate it near the White House.

Experts in and out of the government worry that the most likely source of nuclear material is Russia and the former Soviet bloc nations, where stocks of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium are stored at loosely guarded sites.

And some people are trying to get their hands on them.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reports 976 incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials since 1993 – with 149 of them last year alone. In 2006, a man in the former Soviet republic of Georgia was arrested for allegedly trying to sell highly enriched uranium to terrorists.

In a recent interview, Lee Hamilton, who was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said the United States must do more. He suggested spending $3 billion to $4 billion on securing nuclear material in the former Soviet Union. Currently, U.S. officials spend about $1 billion a year.

Joe Cirincione, author of “Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons,” said some radioactive materials in former eastern bloc nations are “guarded by little more than a chain-linked fence, a padlock and a guard that works during the day.”

He said he considers it a certainty that, “if we just keep doing what we’re doing, a terrorist group will get a nuclear weapon or the materials for a nuclear weapon and use it sometime in the next 10 years.”

“You just can’t keep tempting fate like this,” he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his agency have sought nearly $3 billion to buy sophisticated radiological detectors. They’re placing the detectors at U.S. borders to scan incoming cargo. Eventually, the detectors will be positioned around major cities, but the newest generation of equipment won’t be ready for a couple of years.

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