Illicit and illegal trafficking of nuclear material: a potential health and safety hazard



Philippa Martin-King, International Electrotechnical Commission, Geneva, Switzerland


In today’s world of social unrest and economic difficulty, coupled with ever broadening horizons and ease of travel, there is growing motivation for certain categories of people to agree to transport what appears to be a harmless piece of inert material. After all, a lump of nuclear matter is relatively small, does not glow or glisten, bite or scratch, smell or explode. For some the attraction must be great…

In the 10 years between January 1, 1993 and December, 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported 540 confirmed incidents involving illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials. This figure did not include a further 344 cases that were reported but not confirmed by the regions concerned. At the 2004 international summit on nuclear proliferation in Australia, Nobel peace prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the IAEA, stated that the “risk of a terrorist nuclear outrage” was both “real and current.”

The immediacy of the threat provoked nations to provide themselves with means and methods of detection. In 1998, the US Customs Service started supplying its inspectors with portable radiation detection devices. By May, 2005, the Department of State and Homeland Security (DHS) reported that it had installed over 470 radiation portal monitors nationwide. Towards the end of last year, Britain announced additional security measures for goods vehicles entering and leaving port areas.

According to its 2000 report, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), estimated that 11 million workers worldwide were being examined for exposure to ionizing radiation incurred through their occupation, with doses ranging from a small fraction of natural radiation exposure to several times the value.

Importance of international standards for radiation detection equipment

Understandably, it is important for workers to be able not only to track down and identify black market radioactive material, but also protect their work places as fully as possible. The Geneva-based International Electrotechnical Commission, the IEC, now in its centenary year, prepares and publishes international standards for electrical, electronic and related magnetic and electromagnetic equipment and components which include radiation detectors. Any product that has been certified as corresponding to an IEC standard is guaranteed to be manufactured to a high level of quality, will operate as expected in difficult and varied working conditions and, even more importantly, will be safe for the operator to use. To date, there are three categories of radiation detection products for which standards have been issued by the relevant technical committee, SC 45B (Radiation protection instrumentation).

Hand-held radiation protection devices – International Standard IEC 62327

The first publication was issued by the IEC in February, 2006. It deals with portable instrumentation that is used to detect and identify so-called ‘orphan sources’. These are sources of radioactivity that are no longer under regulatory control, i.e. that have been lost, stolen or abandoned. They constitute a high health risk either due to contamination or through unknown exposure to radiation. Orphan sources can be found, for example, in the former Soviet Union where they were left after the Cold War, others arise due to improper disposal of radioactive material, financial incapacity of developing countries to deal correctly with them or insufficiently strict legislation. Orphan sources, on their way to their final destination which could well be a scrap yard, metal recycling plant or mill, are very likely to cross a border and thus represent a significant health risk to officials working at these locations. The IEC publication sets down rigorous specifications to ensure that detection devices will measure radioactivity in a consistent manner and are sufficiently user friendly to be operated easily by people who are not experts in radiation.

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