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Combating Illicit Trafficking

Nickelsdorf, Austria. A silver station wagon bearing Hungarian plates glides slowly through an Austrian Customs checkpoint at this bustling border crossing. Inside the Customs office, an alarm buzzer sounds immediately—some type of powerful radiation is being emitted from the vehicle.

More than 70 States have joined with the IAEA to collect and share information on trafficking incidents and other unauthorized movements of radioactive sources and materials. The IAEA is helping to train customs agents in uncovering radioactive materials that smugglers attempt to move across international borders.

Customs agents stop the vehicle and confront the driver. They begin scanning his body and the car with hand-held radiation detectors. Within minutes, a concealed container holding a sizeable quantity of Caesium 137 is discovered in the vehicle’s rear compartment. The driver is arrested and the radiation source is quickly contained for further evaluation.

A potential smuggler of radioactive material has been foiled through a combination of modern detection technologies and professional vigilance.

It’s only a training exercise, but one that could prove critically important at any of the scores of major boundary crossings between Central and Eastern European countries. According to the IAEA’s Illicit trafficking database, more than 500 incidents of attempted nuclear smuggling have been uncovered over the past decade. Most have occurred in the European region, where civilian and military nuclear facilities, materials, and radioactive sources are a regular facet of everyday life.

The hands-on training course has attracted dozens of customs agents and officials from more than 10 countries in Eastern and Central Europe. They’re learning how to handle the advanced detection equipment, and what exactly to do to protect themselves and the public if radioactive materials turn up in a car or truck at their duty station. The special courses has been organised by the IAEA through its TC Programme in co-operation with Interpol and the World Customs Organization (WCO).

Responsibility for controlling the use, storage, and transport of nuclear material and radioactive sources rests exclusively with national governments. But since the mid-1990s, IAEA TC has launched several regional efforts to help European countries improve their physical protection systems and bolster their efforts to prevent illicit trafficking in radioactive materials—especially at major border crossings.

The potential for smuggling large quantities of weapons-usable material may be low, but trafficking of even small quantities of such material warrants attention since they might actually be samples of larger quantities available for illicit trade. Moreover, illegal movements of radioactive materials have resulted in fatal radiation exposure to individuals, and thus constitute a very serious threat to public health.

Building Knowledge to Combat
Nuclear Trafficking

One component of IAEA efforts to ensure nuclear material security is the Illicit Trafficking Database Programme (ITDP), designed to keep track of incidents of trafficking in nuclear materials and radioactive sources. ITDB assists Member States by alerting them to current incidents, by facilitating the exchange of reliable information about incidents, and by identifying common trends that might assist in stemming the flow of illegal movements.

Over 70 States have joined the ITDB since it was launched in 1995. Reporting states can designate what information may be shared with other states and what may be shared with the public and mass media. Where information about a possible incident comes from the news media or other open sources, it is evaluated and then, if warranted, the relevant State is contacted to request confirmation or clarification.

Between 1993 and mid-2002, the database recorded 660 incidents, 442 of which were confirmed by States. Of the 191 confirmed incidents that involved nuclear materials, about 10 per cent involved highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, about one-third involved low-enriched uranium, and the remainder involved natural uranium, depleted uranium, or thorium. In most cases where HEU or plutonium was involved, the quantity of material was small compared to the amounts required for a nuclear explosive.

Trafficking in nuclear material and other radioactive sources is a global concern, with confirmed incidents recorded in more than 40 countries on six continents. The majority of confirmed incidents involving nuclear material have occurred in Europe.

“The trafficking problem is complex and requires multiple actions at several levels,” explains Massoud Samiei, Head of the IAEA’s TC European section. “The first priority of responsible authorities must be to prevent the removal of nuclear materials and radioactive sources from their authorized locations. The second priority is to adequately detect and respond to incidents of trafficking which nevertheless occur.” Putting a halt to trafficking is not just complex; it requires financial and human resources: well-trained personnel, good management, advanced equipment and facilities, and a tight system of accountancy and control—very scarce and costly factors in the transition economies of Eastern and Central Europe.

Such specialised training has been very well received and is expanding in both scope and participation. National training courses in combating illicit trafficking have already been conducted in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. More than 50 participants from 24 Eastern European and Central Asian nations— from Albania to Uzbekistan—received training in the operation of Hand-Held Isotope Identifiers at technical workshops held in Vienna, Austria and Ohrid, FYR of Macedonia in 2002. Another 21 participants working at nuclear power plants, research reactors and other nuclear facilities in eight countries received practical training in the fundamentals of physical protection systems as part of a technical co-operation course conducted in Russian at Obninsk in the Russian Federation.

“In developing a comprehensive programme for improved physical protection and prevention of illicit trafficking in the European Region we’ve been working with a whole new constituency. Our new partners include customs officials, finance and revenue departments, and even environment ministries,” explains Mr. Samiei of the IAEA. “We are trying to achieve the right balance between enhancing the human capacities through education and hands-on training, and making necessary improvements in the physical infrastructures that guard nuclear facilities and radioactive sources.”

IAEA has established advisory services to help Member States assess the effectiveness of both national physical protection and radiation safety systems. At the request of Member States, IAEA arranges reviews by experts, such as the International Physical Protection Services (IPPAS) missions (see box here ). It provides peer reviews in related areas such as regulatory or control infrastructures, and also supplies expert technical advice on the required upgrades.

Despite these recent efforts, sizeable deficiencies remain in the legal, administrative, and technical arrangements for controlling nuclear materials and radioactive sources in many countries of the European Region and beyond. The complex of measures for safety, security, physical protection and accountancy and control (including trans-border movements) and the requirements for an adequate legal framework are being addressed through this training project and several other complementary TC projects in Europe.

The IAEA published a new policy guidance concerning the “Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities” (INFCIRC/225/Rev.4) in 1999. One major innovation in these recommendations is the importance attributed to the creation and operation of a “design basis threat” (DBT) in implementing national physical protection programmes. The DBT Process helps States to define the characteristics of potential adversaries who might attempt unauthorized removal of nuclear materials or sabotage. The IAEA recommends development of a DBT for all its Member States to strengthen the effectiveness of their physical protection systems, and offers workshops in defining and implementing a DBT to protect a State's system of nuclear facilities.

Meeting Basic Safety Standards Worldwide

Running parallel to IAEA efforts to enhance security have been major initiatives in all developing regions to improve the regulatory framework for radiation protection in Member States. This entails establishing effective regulatory mechanisms for the control of radiation sources, harmonizing regulatory controls, and establishing national programmes for occupational radiation protection in compliance with the international Basic Safety Standards (BSS).

Five regional Model Projects, including 11 countries in Europe and 52 countries overall were implemented between 1996 to 2000 and have significantly strengthened the radiation safety infrastructures so that they can comply with the international protection standards. Key milestones were established to indicate full compliance with these requirements:

Milestone 1: Establishment of a regulatory framework

Milestone 2: Establishment of occupational exposure control

Milestone 3: Establishment of medical exposure control

Milestone 4: Establishment of public exposure control

Milestone 5: Establishment of emergency preparedness and response capabilities

A December 2001 progress report on the status of the projects revealed that Milestones 1 related activities were well underway: 77 per cent of the countries had promulgated laws and established a regulatory authority; about 80 per cent had an inventory system in place and operational. But only half the participating countries had a system for authorization and control of radiation sources in operation; and less than half had fully adopted regulations. Obviously, sizeable deficiencies remain in the legal, administrative, and technical arrangements for controlling radioactive sources in many European countries.

The IAEA has taken the leading role in the United Nations system in establishing standards of safety, the most significant of which are the BSS and the more recent “Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources.” These guidelines promote consistent international approaches to radiation protection, safety, and security. The Code was published prior to the events of 11 Sept. 2001, and it is to be reviewed in 2002 to determine how it can be enhanced with regard to security. The status of the Code is also being reviewed, as some Member States have called for an internationally binding instrument on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources.

The IAEA has categorized radioactive sources to identify those types that require particular attention for safety and security reasons. The IAEA is also assisting countries in responding to emergencies involving radioactive sources that may cause deaths or injuries or be security problems. Recent incidents have resulted in intensified efforts to address these problems and ensure the application of international standards on radiation safety and security developed by the IAEA and partner organizations.

  Strengthening Nuclear Safety and Security


Combating Illicit Trafficking
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Promoting the Safety and Security of Research Reactors
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Working to Secure Radioactive Sources
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