Iridium in Iraq: Wake Up Call on Radioactive Source Security

Luckily, radioactive material that went missing near Basra, Iraq in November was found intact on Sunday ten miles from the city at a gas station in Zubair, allaying fears that it was intended for an explosive device designed to disperse radioactive material, a so-called dirty bomb. It is important not to over-hype the threat posed by a dirty bomb: weaponizing radioactive materials is difficult and dangerous.  But given the prevalence of radioactive sources, the international community can and must do more to ensure that these materials are securely stored, because detonation of a dirty bomb would have severe consequences.

The material stolen in Iraq, irdium-192, was being used for testing oil and gas pipes. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) classifies it as a Category 2 material on a scale from 1-5, with Category 1 being the most harmful to human health. While a dirty bomb using iridium-192, or a similar material, would not cause devastation on par with a nuclear weapon; such a device could contaminate a significant urban area, causing health and environmental problems. Detonation of a dirty bomb would also cause wide-spread panic and psychological terror.

The theft in Iraq, however, is far from a unique case. Given the medical and industrial uses of radioactive sources, they are found in nearly every country in the world. Security and accountability for the sources varies widely, although the IAEA has a nonbinding Code of Conduct for the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. In addition to security and storage guidelines, the Code of Conduct also requests that countries fulfill a questionnaire on the steps taken to implement the agency’s recommendations.

The IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database collects information about the theft, loss, and unauthorized possession of nuclear and radioactive material. Between 1993-2014, the IAEA recorded 442 incidents involving the “illegal possession and movement” of nuclear or radioactive sources, over a dozen of which took place in 2014. That number becomes even greater if it includes the 714 incidents of theft or loss of radioactive material from a facility or during transport. While there are clear cases of non-state actors attempting to buy and sell nuclear and radioactive material, such as the 2015 case in Moldova, in some instances, like the theft of a truck containing cobalt-60 in Mexico in December 2013, radioactive material is not the target and the hijackers died after attempting to open the shielded containers containing the cobalt-60.

The upcoming Nuclear Security Summit, scheduled for March 31-April 1 in Washington is a critical opportunity for over 50 world leaders to take action to strengthen the security of radioactive sources and encourage countries to develop databases to register and track sources. At the last summit, in The Hague in 2014, a group of 23 countries made a multilateral commitment to secure Category 1 materials within their territories consistent with IAEA recommendations by 2016. The countries also expressed support for developing their own regulatory authorities to oversee and enforce security of radioactive sources, creating national registries of radioactive sources, and developing rapid response teams in the event of a theft or loss.

The 2016 summit will be an important venue for states to report on their implementation of these commitments to secure radioactive sources, encourage additional states to take these steps, and consider additional measures to ensure adequate radioactive source security.

The United States also can do more domestically to secure radioactive sources. An amendment to the Energy Policy Modernization Act introduced by Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) on Feb. 2 is a step in the right direction. Amongst other provisions, the amendment would require a strategy for securing all high-risk low level radioactive sources in the United States. As of 2015, the National Nuclear Security Administration had secured just 800 of 2,300 sites containing low-level radiological materials.

Detonation of a dirty bomb anywhere in the world would have profound health, environmental, and psychological consequences. Given the prevalence of radioactive sources, it is critical that the international community take steps now before such a devastating event were to occur.