Screening to prevent international trafficking of radioactive material



Morand Fachot, technical writer, International Electrotechnical Commission, Geneva, Switzerland


When potentially harmful products can be disposed of illegally, there’s money to be made quickly, and one can expect criminal gangs to seize the opportunity. Few substances offer the same opportunity for significant profit, and present as much danger, as radioactive material when it falls in the wrong hands. Preventing transport of such material across borders is a matter of utmost national security for governments.

Nightmare scenario

Few words conjure up as much fear as ‘nuclear’. The fear of weapons that can kill and maim hundreds of thousands or of widespread radioactive contamination following an accident at nuclear installations is omnipresent in the news. Some states seek to acquire radioactive material to produce nuclear weapons and non-state actors may pursue the same aim to conduct spectacular actions against certain targets. For their part criminals have long understood the potential value of getting their hands on such material. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in particular, with its vast stockpile of nuclear weapons spread all over the country, gave the latter opportunities to make a substantial profit quickly by getting hold of nuclear material. A nightmare scenario for many governments would be the acquisition of radioactive substances by ill-intentioned state or non-state actors, terrorist groups or transnational criminal organisations.

The possibility of setting off a so-called ‘dirty bomb’ that requires only a few kilogrammes of radioactive matter to contaminate large areas is regularly mentioned in connection with terrorist acts. Preventing the transfer of nuclear or radioactive material across borders has thus become an absolute national security priority for many states.

Incidents and trafficking on the increase

In 1995 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN agency that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, set up a database system, now called the Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), to record and analyse incidents of illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material. As of 31 December 2012 it had recorded a total of 2,331 confirmed incidents reported by the 120 participating states. Out of these, 419 involved unauthorised possession and related criminal activities, 615 involved reported theft or loss and 1,244 incidents involved other unauthorised activities and events.

However, the exact extent of the problem is not known as such incidents and trafficking took place before the ITDB was set up and also because not every incident is identified. In the wider Black Sea area alone, more than 110 such incidents were recorded between February 1990 and December 1994. Perpetrators included rebels unsuccessfully attacking a Soviet military depot in Azerbaijan, engineers or officers stealing highly enriched uranium (HEU) from research labs or military installations, and even unemployed youth entering a research institute in the closed city of Arzamas-16 and walking away with 9.5 kg of uranium-238. Nationals from the former Soviet Union, Middle Eastern and European countries and even Latin America were involved. Quantities of substances that included many other radionuclides beside HEU varied from a few hundreds grams to some 80 tonnes of nuclear fuel discovered by the Ukrainian customs service in April 1993 on their way from the Russian Federation to Bulgaria, where it was thought to be intended for shipping to Libya.i Transport of radioactive materials is not necessarily linked to criminal activities only but may also concern the movement of contaminated scrap metals or other matters.

Port infrastructure central to prevent illegal entry

Since more than 90 per cent of world trade is transported by sea, preventing the illegal transfer of radioactive material across borders is best ensured by controlling goods as they enter port loading and unloading areas. This is a hugely difficult task as potentially dangerous quantities of radioactive material are not necessary voluminous and can be hidden in tiny spaces. Detecting it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Special instrumentation is needed for this purpose, it must be very sensitive and meet strict specifications to ensure it can identify small quantities of harmful products and operate reliably. This type of equipment is widely used for security purposes at nuclear facilities, border control posts and international seaports.


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