IAEA Reports Increase in Nuclear Trafficking

Scott Morrissey

According to a Sept. 27 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, incidents of nuclear and radioactive trafficking rose significantly in 2004. Trafficking of nuclear materials has increased for the first time since 2000, and trafficking of radioactive materials has more than doubled over the past two years.

The IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) works with 81 participating states that voluntarily provide information regarding unauthorized acquisitions and transfers of nuclear and radioactive materials. The ITDB has confirmed 662 incidents of nuclear and radioactive trafficking since 1993, with 2004 marking the highest rate of incidents with 93 reported.

Trafficking of nuclear materials—substances containing uranium, plutonium, or thorium—is up slightly but significantly from the previous three years. There were 11 such incidents in 2004, compared to 6 in 2003 and 9 in 2002. The ITDB reports a total of 196 nuclear material incidents since 1993, 178 of which involved low-grade materials such as low-enriched, natural, and depleted uranium, as well as roughly two-dozen incidents involving trace amounts of plutonium-239. None of these items are in themselves suitable for making nuclear weapons, but the incidents demonstrate the insecurity of these materials and their storage facilities.

None of the 2004 incidents involved weapons-grade material. Since 1993, there have been only 18 confirmed incidents of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium trafficking, all of which occurred in Europe or the former Soviet Union and mostly concerned amounts of less than 1 kilogram. The latest reported incident of this type occurred in 2003, when an individual was arrested trying to smuggle 170 grams of HEU across the border of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Trafficking of radioactive materials, mainly radioactive isotopes of cesium, americium, strontium, cobalt, and iridium, have increased, according to the report. The ITDB confirmed 77 incidents of radioactive material trafficking in 2004, an increase from 64 in 2003, which together comprise one-third of the 400 reports submitted since 1993. These radioactive materials have legitimate applications in industry and medicine, and most instances of their trafficking involved substances that are not thought to pose a serious radiological risk if used in malicious acts. However, about 50 of the reported incidents involved sources that are radioactive enough to be considered “dangerous” if used for destructive purposes, such as in a radioactive dispersal device, or “dirty bomb.” Of these high-risk incidents, the overwhelming majority were reported in the last six years.

Although the ITDB report states that this increase in trafficking is partially explained by better reporting from its states-parties, it also says it is indicative of a black market demand for these materials.