In The Field

IAEA: License to ill(icitly traffic nuclear material)

Yesterday the press got a briefing from the the team running the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Illicit Trafficking Database. The database was officially established in 1995 and is one of the few publicly available sources of information on nuclear smuggling. 108 countries voluntarily deposit information about lost, missing or stolen radiological material in the database. They do so on condition of anonymity, so the IAEA won’t say too much about where any given incidents occur. However, they do give aggrigate numbers which are in and of themselves reasonably interesting.

The scariest of these numbers has to do with what they not-so-euphemistically call “unauthorized possessions” of nuclear materials—basically attempts by unsavory characters to sell nuclear material of one kind or another on the black market. Between 1993 and 2008 the agency recorded 333 incidents, 16 of which took place last year. Since the mid-1990s, the number of reported incidents has been relatively constant, says Viacheslav Turkin, a nuclear security officer with the agency.

Next on the list were incidents theft of lost materials. These were mainly smaller, portable sources used for commercial surveying or medical purposes. The agency has recorded a total of 463 cases in which these materials disappeared over the past decade-and-a-half. Worryingly only 65% of them have been reported as recovered (although Turkin notes that some countries may not have bothered to notify the IAEA about recovered sources).

Finally came the infamous “orphan sources”, radioactive materials that are lost and forgotten. The number of these sources has shot up in recent years to a grand total of 754, probably as a result of better reporting. Nevertheless, Turkin finds such incidents the most disturbing because they show a complete failure of a nation to keep track of its nuclear material.

I asked Turkin how the scientific community was doing at maintaining control of its radiological material, and he said overall that “not many cases show research reactor fuel.” But that doesn’t mean incidents involving academic material weren’t taking place. Medical isotopes have much shorter half lives and are therefor under fairly lax control, he noted, as were smaller research sources used in most laboratories. Turkin felt that it was a mistake for authorities to overlook cases in which research material might go missing. “Every theft whatever the [radio]activity of the source should be investigated,” he says.


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