Illicit Nuclear Trafficking & the New Agenda

by Vladimir A. Orlov

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What is Nuclear Trafficking?

The illicit trafficking in nuclear material is intra- or inter-border movement of nuclear materials that are sensitive from the point of non-proliferation (i.e. uranium with 20% enrichment and higher and plutonium, as well as related fuel cycle facilities that might be accessed illegally). Thus, it is mostly the matter of stealing 20% (or higher) enriched uranium and plutonium from nuclear fuel cycle enterprises. Once stolen, the material can be left within the country of origin (i.e. pure theft) or illegally transported to another State (i.e. nuclear smuggling). The latter is the most dangerous from the point of non-proliferation.

The theft and smuggling of nuclear materials can pursue different goals. One is commercial, that is, resale to the third party with the purpose of obtaining personal financial profits. Another is terrorist, namely the malevolent use of stolen nuclear materials for terrorism or blackmail. In the case of nuclear material smuggling there is a high possibility that those who acquired nuclear materials from the thief will later use it for developing a military nuclear programme of a State striving for possession of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the buyer may represent a State or a non-State actor willing to acquire nuclear weapons, and after purchasing, it will be the buyer who will carry out contraband supplies of nuclear materials.

IAEA Tracks Illicit Trafficking of Nuclear & Radioactive Material

As of December 2003, the IAEA's Illicit Trafficking Database contains 540 confirmed incidents involving illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials, which have occurred since 1 January 1993. Several hundred additional incidents (344) that have been reported in open sources, but not confirmed by States, are also tracked in the IAEA database but are not included in the following statistics. The majority of these confirmed incidents involved deliberate intent to illegally acquire, smuggle, or sell nuclear material or other radioactive material. The database also includes some incidents where actions may have been inadvertent, such as accidental disposal or the detection of radioactively contaminated products.

Of the 540 confirmed illicit trafficking incidents about 41% involved nuclear material, and 62% involved radioactive material other than nuclear material. (These figures total more that 100% because some incidents involved both nuclear and other radioactive materials. )

Incidents regarding nuclear material

Incidents with Nuclear Material

As of December 2003, the IAEA database includes 182 confirmed incidents since 1 January 1993 that involved nuclear material.

Weapons-usable nuclear material. Of these 182 incidents with nuclear material, less than 10% (18 incidents) involved highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, materials that could be used for the fissile core of a nuclear explosive device. During the first half of the 1990s, quantities of a kilogram or more of HEU were seized in a few cases, and in one case about 0.3 kg of plutonium (Pu) was seized. By contrast, no confirmed theft or seizure since 1995 has involved more than 1% or 2% of what would be needed for constructing a nuclear bomb. These small quantities are not grounds for complacency, however. Even when small quantities of such material are seized, the question remains whether they might have been samples of larger quantities available for illicit sale. Another concern is that trafficking in such materials might occur undetected.

Lower-grade nuclear materials. The overwhelming majority of confirmed nuclear trafficking involved lower grade materials. These include: low-enriched uranium (LEU), usually in the form of nuclear reactor fuel pellets; natural uranium in a variety of forms and purity; depleted uranium, usually in the form of shielding material in containers of the type used to ship or store radioactive sources; and thorium in various forms including ore. While the quantities of these lower-grade materials that have been stolen or seized to date have been too small to be significant for nuclear proliferation, these cases sometimes are indicative of gaps in the control and security of nuclear material.

Other Radioactive Material

As of December 2003, the IAEA database includes 335 confirmed incidents since 1 January 1993 that involved radioactive material other than nuclear material. In most of the cases, the trafficked radioactive material was in the form of sealed radioactive sources. However, some incidents with unsealed radioactive samples, or radioactivity contaminated materials such as contaminated scrap metal, also have been reported to the illicit trafficking database and are include in the statistics. Some States are more complete than others in reporting incidents, and open-source information suggests that the actual number of cases is significantly larger than the number confirmed to the IAEA.

Radioactive sources involved in confirmed trafficking demonstrate a wide range of activity levels. The vast majority of them have been too weak to cause serious health problems if used for malicious acts.

For more information on nuclear security, see the IAEA's web pages at

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