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Illicit Nuclear Trafficking
Facts & Figures:

Illicit Nuclear Trafficking Statistics: January 1993 - December 2004

As of December 2004, the IAEA´s Illicit Trafficking Database contains 662 confirmed incidents involving illicit trafficking and other related unauthorized activities involving nuclear and other radioactive materials, which have occurred since 1 January 1993. Several hundred additional incidents that have been reported in open sources, but not yet 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 intentional illegal acquisition, possession, transfer of nuclear 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 or discovery of uncontrolled, or "orphan" sources. Summary of information follows. See full text [pdf].

About the ITDB

The Agency´s Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) facilitates the exchange of authoritative information on incidents of trafficking and other unauthorized activities involving nuclear and other radioactive materials. The database was established in 1995. Presently 82 IAEA Member States report to the ITDB.

Overview of Confirmed Illicit Trafficking Incidents

As of 31 December 2004, the ITDB contained 662 confirmed incidents reported by the participating Member States. On a number of occasions the Database has received notifications from non-participating Member States.

Of the 662 confirmed incidents, 196 incidents involved nuclear materials, 400 incidents involved other radioactive materials, mainly radioactive sources, 24 incidents involved both nuclear and other radioactive materials, 37 incidents involved radioactively contaminated materials, and five incidents involved other materials.

In 2003-2004, the number of incidents reported by States to the ITDB substantially increased. Improved reporting may in part account for it. The majority of the incidents reported in 2003-2004 showed no evidence of criminal activity.

View chart: Incidents confirmed to the ITDB (1993-2004) » [pdf]

Nuclear Materials

Illicit trafficking in nuclear materials is a potential threat to the security of states and international security. Nuclear trafficking could be a shortcut to nuclear proliferation and to nuclear terrorism. And loss or unauthorized disposal of nuclear material or nuclear waste may result in grave economic and environmental consequences.

The data reported to the ITDB in 1993-2004 shows a long-term downward trend in the occurrence of incidents involving nuclear materials. In 2004, however, for the first time since 2000, the ITDB recorded an increase in the number of such incidents. About half of them involved criminal activity. None involved HEU or Pu.

View chart: Incidents involving nuclear materials confirmed to the ITDB (1993-2004) » [pdf]

During 1993-2004, eighteen confirmed incidents involved trafficking in high-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium (Pu). A few of these incidents involved seizures of kilogram quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material, but most involved very small quantities. In some of the cases the seized material was allegedly a sample of larger quantities available for illegal sale or at risk of theft. The most recent confirmed HEU case occurred in June 2003. Also, more than two dozens incidents involved trace amounts of 239Pu in Pu sources.

View table: Incidents involving HEU and Pu confirmed to the ITDB (1993-2004) » [pdf]

The majority of confirmed cases with nuclear materials involved low-grade nuclear materials, i.e. low enriched uranium (LEU) mostly in the form of reactor fuel pellets, and natural uranium, depleted uranium, and thorium. While the quantities of these materials have been rather small to be significant for nuclear proliferation or use in a terrorist nuclear explosive device, these cases are indicative of gaps in the control and security of nuclear material and nuclear facilities.

The majority of confirmed incidents with nuclear materials recorded during the period 1993-2004 involved criminal activity, such as theft, illegal possession, illegal transfer or transaction. Some of these incidents indicate that there is a perceived demand for such materials on the "black market." Where information on motives is available, it indicates that profit seeking is the principal motive behind such events.

Other Radioactive Materials

Illicit trafficking and other related unauthorized activities involving other radioactive materials, mainly radioactive sources is a global phenomenon. Radioactive sources are used worldwide in a host of legitimate applications while measures to protect and control their use, storage or disposal are much less strict than those applied toward nuclear materials.

During the period 1993-2004, a total of 424 incidents were reported involving other radioactive materials mostly in the form of radioactive sources. In the hands of terrorists or other criminals, some radioactive sources could be used for malicious purposes, e.g. in a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or "dirty bomb." Also, uncontrolled radioactive sources can harm human health or the environment. Unlawfully discarded or disposed of radioactive sources, when melted at scrap metal recycle plants, may lead to severe environmental and economic related consequences.

Incidents confirmed to the ITDB involved radioactive sources with various activity levels and applications. The majority of them involved radioisotope 137Cs, followed by 241Am, 90Sr, 60Co and 192Ir. Portable or mobile radioactive sources used for various industrial applications, such as gauging or radiography, are mostly frequently involved in confirmed incidents.

View chart: Incidents involving radioactive sources confirmed to the ITDB, by type of radioisotope (1993-2004) » [pdf]
View chart: Incidents involving radioactive sources confirmed to the ITDB, by type of application (1993-2004) » [pdf]

Activity levels of the majority of these sources were too low to pose serious radiological risk if used for malicious purposes. About 50 incidents involved high-risk "dangerous"1 radioactive sources, which present considerable radiological danger if used in a malicious act. The overwhelming majority of incidents involving "dangerous" sources were reported over the last six years.

Roughly a half of all incidents with radioactive sources involved criminal activity, most frequently theft. Perpetrator intentions are often not immediately apparent. Sources and devices in which they are used can be attractive for thieves because of their perceived high resale value or the value of their shielding or encapsulation metals. Some cases, however, indicate a perceived demand for radioactive materials on the "black market."

Radioactively Contaminated Materials

Some incidents involving radioactively contaminated materials also have been reported to the ITDB. Such incidents, however, are largely underreported.

Joining the ITDB

Participation in the ITDB reporting is voluntary. As of September 2005, 82 IAEA Member States were participating in the ITDB programme.

View Factsheet: ITDB Membership as of 1 September 2005 » [pdf]

Non-participating Member States are strongly encouraged to join the ITDB programme. The Database seeks to achieve universality of its membership in order to better serve the purpose of effectively contributing to the international efforts of strengthening nuclear security worldwide and preventing nuclear and radiological terrorism.

Member States wishing to join the ITDB programme should contact IAEA Office of Nuclear Security. Member States will be asked to nominate a single national Point of Contact who will provide reports on incidents to the ITDB, receive information and illicit trafficking reports produced by the Agency, and will be able to facilitate enquiries on specific incidents sent by the ITDB Secretariat. Information on the Database, the procedures for reporting incidents, and copies of the Incident Notification Form will be sent to the POC.

Membership and Nominations

Membership applications and nominations of Points of Contact should be sent to:

Ms. Anita Nilsson
Head, Office of Nuclear Security
International Atomic Energy Agency
Wagramerstrasse 5, P.O. Box 100
A-1400, Vienna, AUSTRIA
Tel: +43-1-2600-22299
Fax: +43-1-2600-29299
E-Mail: [email protected]

1 IAEA Categorization of Radioactive Sources, TECDOC-1344. Radioactive sources belonging to Categories 1, 2 and 3 are considered "dangerous," i.e. as having potential to cause deterministic health effects if uncontrolled or used for malicious purposes.