Illicit trafficking, theft of nuclear materials ‘a persistent problem,’ UN agency reports

12 September 2007 – Illicit trafficking, theft and loss of nuclear and other radioactive materials remain “a persistent problem,” according to the United Nations agency entrusted with pre-empting nuclear and radiological terrorism and preventing proliferation.

More than 250 incidents involving unauthorized possession and related criminal activities, theft or loss of nuclear or other radioactive materials, and other activities such as unauthorized disposal of radioactive materials were reported to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) last year, of which 150 occurred in 2006 and the rest mainly in 2005.

“Information reported to the ITDB shows a persistent problem with the illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials, thefts, losses, and other unauthorized activities,” the latest ITDB report said.

Of the 150 incidents that occurred in 2006, 14 involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activities and can be described as illicit trafficking, containing such factors as illegal possession, movement, or attempts to illegally trade in the materials.

The majority of these incidents involved sealed radioactive sources and the materials included natural uranium, depleted uranium, and thorium.

In January 2007, Georgia reported to the ITDB an incident that occurred in February 2006 and involved the seizure of 79.5 grammes of 89 per cent-enriched uranium.

Another 85 incidents in 2006 involved thefts, losses or misrouting of nuclear or other radioactive materials. Thefts of such materials are of particular concern since they can be upstream evidence of illicit trafficking and are indicators of vulnerabilities in control and security systems. In about 73 per cent of cases, the lost or stolen materials have not been reportedly recovered.

Eight of these incidents involved high-risk “dangerous” radioactive sources that are classified as Category 2 and 3. Another 51 reported incidents involved various types of material recovery showing no direct evidence of criminal behaviour, such as detection of materials disposed of in an unauthorized way.

“Uncontrolled nuclear and other radioactive materials also are evidence of weaknesses in control and security measures. These could be exploited by those with a malicious intent,” the report noted.

As of 31 December2006, the ITDB contained 1,080 confirmed incidents reported by participating States since 1993, of which 275 involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activity, 332 involved theft or loss and 398 other unauthorized activities.

Past incidents of illicit trafficking involved seizures of kilogramme quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material, but most have involved very small quantities, the report said. “In some of these cases, there is a possibility that seized material was a sample of larger quantities available for illegal purchase or at risk of theft. If so, these materials pose a continuous potential security threat,” it added.

“Where information on motives is available, it indicates that profit seeking is the principal motive behind such events. Some cases, however, showed an indication of malicious intent.”

Currently, 96 States participate in the ITDB Programme. In some cases, non-participating Member States have provided information.

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