Averting radiation terrorism

In September 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported a dramatic rise in the level of smuggling of radioactive sources, most notably in 2003/2004, including one case involving weapons-grade material. The IAEA figures are indicative of the continuing inadequate security of radioactive materials, particularly in Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union. However, the IAEA reported that more than 100 countries around the world have inadequate security for their radioactive sources.

Radioactive materials include military-grade plutonium-239 and uranium enriched to 90 per cent used in nuclear weapons. Terrorists do not have the vast resources needed to manufacture the highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium-239 needed for a bomb; therefore stealing or buying it is their only option. Other more common sources include spent uranium fuel and other highly radioactive by-products of civilian nuclear power plants (NPPs) and thousands of civilian-use radioisotope sources used in medicine, mining and industry, such as cesium-137, cobalt-60 and americium-141. Nuclear smuggling of any of these materials enhances the threat of terrorists deploying radiological dispersal devices (RDDs) - conventional explosive devices combined with a radioactive element as well as non-explosive means of dispersing radioactivity.

From 1993 to 2004, the IAEA recorded 300 confirmed cases of which 215 were recorded in a five-year period from 1999. Compared to just eight incidents in 1996, there were 77 incidents reported in 2003. Since 1993, the IAEA has tracked 196 incidents, including weapons materials, (plutonium, uranium, and thorium) 18 of which involved HEU or plutonium. While these materials have been smuggled in very small quantities that are not usable in a nuclear weapon, the IAEA believes such amounts are possibly samples of larger supplies that may not be secure. In June 2003, an individual was caught attempting to smuggle 170 grams of HEU across the border of the former Soviet republic of Georgia - the largest amount of HEU recorded in a trafficking report.

It is not clear how much the increase in trafficking is due to better reporting of crime interception, or how far it contributes to the attainment of such materials by groups intent on using them for lethal purposes. Some authorities may actually under-report incidents, or may not be able to monitor all trafficking. Natural uranium in particular is hard to detect as it emits low radioactivity.

The eventual destination of missing sources also often remains unknown. Trafficking is, however, most likely to be stimulated by demand from Chechen separatists and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic groups. Many cases involve profit-seeking criminals or other thieves who are unaware of the nature of their booty - and have fallen victim to radiation injury in the process - and scientists and other disgruntled workers with access to military or civilian nuclear facilities. A more alarming factor is the involvement by organised criminal groups.

Origins of radioactive sources

Many radioactive sources have been lost or abandoned in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Vulnerable sources include hundreds of Russian thermo generators, used to generate electricity in remote rural areas. One thermo generator contains as much strontium-90 as was released by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Also scattered around vast tracts of countryside are seed irradiators containing caesium-137 left over from Cold War experiments to measure the effects of radiation on plant growth.

More than 10,000 radiotherapy machines, each containing 1,000 pellets of cobalt-60, are in hospitals worldwide. Each pellet emits enough radiation to exceed the defined individual annual safety limit within two minutes. Medical devices and construction equipment are abandoned in company scrap yards, residences and garages. Individuals will often carry materials on their person or in vehicles, thereby spreading contamination.

The IAEA records around 1,000 radioactive sources still unaccounted for in Iraq following extensive looting of cobalt, caesium, and uranium oxide at former nuclear facilities, such as Al-Tuwaitha. According to the US General Accounting Office, the US Department of Defense (DOD) was not ready to collect and secure radiological sources when the war began in March 2003 and for about six months thereafter. In June 2004, the DOD sent 1,000 of the 1,400 sources to the US for disposal. However, the total number of radiological sources in Iraq remains unknown.

The RDD threat

There is no documented precedent for RDD deployment - other than planting, but not detonation - by Chechen rebels of a dynamite/caesium-137 device in a Moscow park in December 1995. Chechen rebels have also tried to steal fuel from NPPs.

Although regarded as a less common risk and highly hazardous undertaking, terrorists could use stolen uranium or plutonium from a reactor to construct an improvised nuclear device, which would be assembled at a target site. More likely is RDD deployment from commonly used radioisotopes.

There are varying assessments of RDD effects. Some conclude that contamination from an RDD containing a few grams of radioisotope may not require such extensive decontamination as previously predicted. However, depending on the size of the radioactive component and other aspects of the device's construction - and other variables such as temperature, wind direction and rainfall, location of blast and numbers and location of people affected - a RDD attack is generally regarded as likely to cause severe economic disruption due to lengthy decontamination procedures and possible immediate radiation injury, as well as a heightened risk of cancer and other long-term health effects.

Non-explosive radioactive dispersal

Non-explosive dispersal of radioactivity also poses a threat, such as abandoning a piece of equipment containing a source that could have been broken open and unshielded. The most notable accidental example of this was in GoiĆ¢nia, Brazil, in 1987, when scrap metal scavengers broke into an abandoned clinic and removed a cesium chloride capsule from the protective housing of a cancer therapy machine. The thieves punctured the capsule, allowing the powder to leak out. Once moved to a local scrap yard, people began handling it believing it to be luminous paint, and as a result 151 were contaminated internally and externally. Five died and 49 suffered radiation burns. Thousands more had to be monitored for contamination, dozens of houses were demolished, and the area suffered subsequent economic hardship.

Regions of concern

From 1992 to 2002, some 370 incidents of radioactive materials trafficking were recorded in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Many cases documented by the IAEA working with local police authorities involved materials originating there. For example, in May 2003 a smuggler was arrested in Tbilisi, Georgia, carrying lead-lined boxes containing strontium-90 and caesium-137.

There has also been a growing incidence of cases in South and Southeast Asia. Smugglers often follow established narcotics routes through Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1998, two Afghans were intercepted in possession of quantities of uranium in Peshawar, Pakistan. In March 2004, a smuggler in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, was found in possession of a three-gram capsule of plutonium, which he was attempting to transport to Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Vulnerable sites include uranium mines, hospitals, and the growing number of research reactors and NPPs in developing countries. Stewardship is often inadequate; of 25 radioactive sources stolen from an Indonesia steel company in 2000, most have still to be recovered.

Challenges to RDD deployment

The trafficking of radioactive sources has sometimes resulted in the irradiation of those handling them, as occurred in Thailand in 2001, thereby hampering or totally preventing their transfer to prospective clients and, probably, the actual construction of devices. The high radioactivity of spent uranium fuel rods, or of caesium-137 and other radioisotopes makes constructing a RDD out of these materials, if removed from their shielding, an extremely hazardous and most likely fatal activity, depending on the length of exposure and type of material. But this may not deter suicide terrorists as long as they can live long enough to assemble their devices.

It is difficult to ascertain whether, despite the increased number of trafficking cases, the absence of any recorded explosion of a RDD is due to these challenges, or because terrorists mainly prefer the tried and tested methods of attack - conventional explosives alone.

Measures to counter smuggling

Improved communications and intelligence sharing between national police forces, Interpol and the IAEA is vital to pre-empt smuggling. Preventing theft or loss of radioactive sources and intercepting smugglers necessitates enhanced border controls and cross-border co-operation before the materials reach their intended destination. Also crucial is improved security at NPPs, and the strict monitoring of radioactive sources and their disposal. This means heightened security measures at civilian centres such as hospitals, which while well monitored in the West, varies enormously in other regions. Control of civilian sources worldwide relies on accurate and well-maintained inventories by hospitals and industry. Improved stewardship is essential to prevent the abandonment of sources.

The US runs several programmes to lend financial and technical assistance to Russia to safely decommission nuclear warheads and fissile material. The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) has securely repatriated 122kg of HEU to Russia in eight operations. The GTRI has also reclaimed 17 kg of HEU fuel from Bulgaria, about 17 kg of fresh HEU from Libya and 3 kg of fresh HEU from Uzbekistan to Russia. But such efforts are criticised for lack of access and poor administration on the part of the recipient governments. In the former Soviet Union, 16 disposal sites for civilian sources will reach full capacity by 2010.

Radiation detectors at ports and airports will aid pre-emption, particularly at global checkpoints at major ports, where millions of tonnes of goods are imported and exported. It is easy to conceal small amounts of radioactive material or small devices. In 2004, the US government set up the Megaports Initiative, which oversees the installation of equipment to screen containers leaving and arriving at ports of member countries. Newer radiation detectors can distinguish between weapons-grade materials, medical and industrial radioisotopes, and naturally occurring radiation. The success of this and other initiatives depends on the degree of co-operation from other countries - including those where smuggling is prevalent - to allow the US to provide its ports with detection equipment and training, and to exchange intelligence on suspected trafficking.

Explore our related content