Nuclear Trafficking Latest Statistics Released

Customs and police investigators from Eastern Europe are shown how to use a radiation counter during an IAEA, WCO and Interpol training course to combat nuclear trafficking. (Photo credit: V. Mouchkin/IAEA)

Countries reported 121 incidents to the IAEA in 2004 of illicit trafficking and other unauthorized activities involving nuclear and other radioactive materials, newly released statistics from the Agency's Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) show.

The ITDB report also shows that one incident was reported since 2003 that involved fissile material - highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium - that is needed to make a nuclear weapon. It occurred in June 2003 when an individual was arrested in possession of 170 grams of HEU, attempting to illegally transport it across the border.

During the two-year period 2003-2004, the number of incidents reported by States substantially increased compared with previous years. "Improved reporting may in part account for it," the report said. "The majority of the incidents reported in 2003-2004 showed no evidence of criminal activity."

The Past Twelve Years: 1993 - 2004

Nuclear Weapons Grade Material

Since the database started in 1993, there have been eighteen confirmed incidents involving trafficking in HEU and plutonium. 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. More than two dozens incidents involved trace amounts of plutonium sources.

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

Nuclear Materials

In the past twelve years, 220 confirmed incidents involved nuclear materials. Of these, eighteen incidents involved trafficking in HEU and plutonium. 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. More than two dozens incidents involved trace amounts of plutonium sources.

The majority of confirmed cases with nuclear materials involved low-grade nuclear materials, 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 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.

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

Radioactive Materials

From 1993-2004, a total of 424 incidents were reported involving other radioactive materials mostly in the form of radioactive sources. 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.

In the hands of terrorists or other criminals, some radioactive sources could be used for malicious purposes, for example in a radiological dispersal device or "dirty bomb." Uncontrolled radioactive sources also have the potential to 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.

The majority of incidents involved radioisotopes and portable radioactive sources used for various industrial applications, such as gauging or radiography.

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" 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.

See "Facts and Figures" under Story Resources for a complete breakdown of the latest statistics.

The IAEA´s illicit trafficking database was set-up to facilitate the exchange of authoritative information on incidents of illicit trafficking and other related unauthorized activities involving nuclear and other radioactive materials among States. Over the years its purpose has expanded to maintaining and analysing this information to identify common trends and patterns.

Last update: 12 November 2014