"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
IAEA Says Illicit Nuclear Material Trade Down

Sonia Luthra

Illicit trafficking of nuclear materials decreased slightly last year from 2004 levels, according to an Aug. 21 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report. A broader category of activity involving unlawful or unauthorized nuclear, radioactive, and radioactively contaminated materials also decreased last year for the first time since 2002.

The Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) details the possession, acquisition, transfer, and disposal of nuclear and other types of radioactive materials, including material that can be used to make nuclear weapons such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Ninety-one states gave voluntary information to the IAEA, 10 more than participated in 2004.

Incidents involving nuclear materials—substances containing uranium, plutonium, or thorium—have decreased slightly to 18 incidents per year from 20 incidents reported in 2004. This is still much higher, however, than the seven incidents reported in 2003 and nine in 2002. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Two cases involving HEU occurred last year in Japan and the United States. Both instances involved such small quantities of HEU that they were considered of “little concern” as a potential terrorism threat, according to the report. They did, however, show security vulnerabilities at facilities handling HEU. Since 1993, 16 reported incidents have involved either HEU or plutonium.

Since 1993, the IAEA has documented 827 confirmed incidents of illicit trafficking and other unauthorized activity involving nuclear, radioactive, and radioactively contaminated materials. Of these, 103 incidents were reported in 2005, a decrease from the 128 incidents reported in 2004 but still significantly higher than the average of less than 50 incidents in the 1990s. The majority of dangerous incidents involving these materials involved illegal disposal.