Module 4:

Illicit Trafficking

What is illicit trafficking?

  • Illicit trafficking is the unauthorized removal, theft, sale, transfer, or transport of nuclear and/or other radioactive materials [i]
  • Definitions of radioactive material trafficking often capture both intentional acts, such as theft, and unintentional acts, such as losses. [ii] This broader definition is important because:
    • All materials out of regulatory control are hypothetically available to criminals and terrorists
    • Understanding how any nuclear or other radioactive material falls out of regulatory control can illuminate gaps in the global nuclear security architecture and inform corrective actions
    • Material outside control can also present safety risks to people and the environment
  • The scope of trafficking in radioactive materials is difficult to assess. Credible information is often lacking, lost or stolen material may go undetected, and incidents, even if detected, may go unreported by governments and the media
  • Much of what we know about trafficking comes from several databases that track incidents of nuclear or other radioactive material that has fallen out of regulatory control
    • The IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) is the most well-known, and collects only those trafficking incidents that are reported or confirmed by member states
    • The University of Salzburg Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft, and Orphaned Sources (DTSO) includes incidents reported by governments as well as in the open-source, but is only accessible with permission of its owners
    • The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, launched in 2013 for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, collects official and media-reported incidents, and is freely accessible to the public

Are dangerous materials available on the black market?

Seizures of HEU and plutonium are rare, and their overall numbers have declined since the 1990s. Incidents nonetheless continue to occur, indicating that some potentially nuclear weapons-usable material remains vulnerable. [iii]

  • Nearly 20 known cases involving unauthorized possession of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium have been documented
    • Collectively, these involved almost 20kg of material, 98 percent of which was HEU [iv]
    • Most incidents involved seizures of only small quantities of potentially weapons-usable material, but several involved kilogram quantities [v]
    • Although none of these incidents involved quantities sufficient for a nuclear bomb, there was credible evidence in several cases that “the seized material was a sample from a larger unsecured stockpile” [vi]

The majority of reported incidents involve non-nuclear radioactive material, only some of which would be suitable for radiological terrorism.

  • The DTSO recorded over 3000 incidents between 1991 and 2012, [vii] and approximately 80 percent of cases recorded through 2009 involved non-nuclear radioactive material [viii]
  • Only a small portion of these incidents (less than 10 percent) involved material that presented a substantial security risk [ix]
  • Utilizing the IAEA categorization scheme, which groups radiological sources into 5 categories based on their safety and security risks, the DTSO found 20 cases of “extremely dangerous” Category 1 sources and 90 cases of “very dangerous” Category 2 sources [x]
  • The IAEA recorded 5 thefts of Category 1-3 sources in 2011, and 2 such thefts in 2012. [xi] The CNS database identified one loss and one theft of Category 1 sources in 2013 [xii]
  • Government authorities usually make a concerted effort to reestablish control over Category 1-3 radioactive sources, but as former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei noted, “much of this material is not subsequently recovered” [xiii]

Where does illicit trafficking occur?

Who is involved in nuclear and other radioactive material smuggling?

  • Actors on the black market for nuclear and other radioactive material consist of sellers, middle men, and buyers. Since incidents of nuclear smuggling are almost always detected when the material is in the hands of suppliers, however, little is known about the demand-side of the black market [xiv]
  • While some terrorist and other extremist organizations are known to be interested in acquiring the means to carry out nuclear and radiological attacks, none are known to have found a willing and reliable seller
    • Al-Qaeda searched for weapons-grade nuclear material in the 1990s, but was reportedly duped into buying low-grade or fictitious material on several occasions [xv]
    • Despite efforts to acquire Russian nuclear warheads, expertise, and material, Aum Shinrikyo failed to identify a willing supplier [xvi]
  • On the supply-side, employees of nuclear facilities (i.e. insiders), and intermediaries appear to constitute the principal actors
    • With one exception, all known thefts of HEU or plutonium were perpetrated by insiders, or with assistance from insiders at bulk-handling facilities [xvii]
    • In each of these cases, insider thieves were motivated by the expectation of profit from selling the material [xviii]
    • Intermediaries include individuals tasked to seek out potential customers, or persons who buy material on the expectation of re-sale profit
    • Intermediaries range from “amateurish fortune-seekers and primitive criminals to metal-trading companies and organized crime groups” [xix]
      • In most instances, intermediaries are amateurs who know little about what they are selling and how to avoid detection and apprehension [xx]
      • Reported incidents suggest organized crime groups and professional traffickers may not be heavily involved in nuclear smuggling, although in a few instances perpetrators were linked to organized crime or engaged in other smuggling activities [xxi]
      • Given their experience with evading law enforcement, professional criminals could have avoided detection thus far, and may be more involved in nuclear trafficking than is commonly assumed [xxii]

Over a hundred incidents of thefts and other unauthorized activities involving nuclear and radioactive material are reported to the [IAEA] every year.

—Yukiya Amano, Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Sources

[i] “Chapter 6: Illicit Trafficking in Radioactive Materials,” in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks: a Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007), p. 119.

[ii] Lyudmila Zaitseva, “Nuclear Trafficking: 20 Years in Review,” Contribution to the World Federation of Scientists Meeting, August 2010, p. 1; International Atomic Energy Agency, “Incident and Trafficking Database,” 24 April 2014, http://www-ns.iaea.org/security/itdb.asp.

[iii] Lyudmila Zaitseva and Friedrich Steinhausler, “Nuclear Trafficking Issues in the Black Sea Region,” EU Non-Proliferation Papers, No. 39, April 2014, http://www.nonproliferation.eu/documents/nonproliferationpapers/lyudmilazaitsevafriedrichsteinhausler53451ed0bbecb.pdf.

[iv] Lyudmila Zaitseva and Friedrich Steinhausler, “Nuclear Trafficking Issues in the Black Sea Region,” EU Non-Proliferation Papers, No. 39, April 2014, p. 4, http://www.nonproliferation.eu/documents/nonproliferationpapers/lyudmilazaitsevafriedrichsteinhausler53451ed0bbecb.pdf.

[v] International Atomic Energy Agency, “IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB): Incidents of Nuclear and other Radioactive Material out of Regulatory Control, 2014 Fact Sheet,” p. 2, http://www-ns.iaea.org/downloads/security/itdb-fact-sheet.pdf.

[vi] International Atomic Energy Agency, “IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB): Incidents of Nuclear and other Radioactive Material out of Regulatory Control, 2014 Fact Sheet,” p. 2, http://www-ns.iaea.org/downloads/security/itdb-fact-sheet.pdf; and Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “Illicit Trafficking in Weapons-Useable Nuclear Material: Still More Questions Than Answers,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, December 11, 2011, http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/illicit-trafficking-weapons-useable-nuclear-material-still-more-questions-answers/.

[vii] Lyudmila Zaitseva and Friedrich Steinhausler, “Nuclear Trafficking Issues in the Black Sea Region,” EU Non-Proliferation Papers, No. 39, April 2014, p. 4, http://www.nonproliferation.eu/documents/nonproliferationpapers/lyudmilazaitsevafriedrichsteinhausler53451ed0bbecb.pdf.

[viii] Lyudmila Zaitseva, “Nuclear Trafficking: 20 Years in Review,” Contribution to the World Federation of Scientists Meeting, August 2010, p. 3.

[ix] Lyudmila Zaitseva, “Nuclear Trafficking: 20 Years in Review,” Contribution to the World Federation of Scientists Meeting, August 2010, p. 4.

[x] Lyudmila Zaitseva, “Nuclear Trafficking: 20 Years in Review,” Contribution to the World Federation of Scientists Meeting, August 2010, p. 4.

[xi] International Atomic Energy Agency, “Nuclear Security Report 2012,” Report by the Director General, July 31, 2012, p. 5, http://www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC56/GC56Documents/English/gc56-15_en.pdf; International Atomic Energy Agency, “Nuclear Security Report 2013,” Report by the Director General, August 6, 2013, p. 5, http://www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC57/GC57Documents/English/gc57-16_en.pdf.

[xii] “CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database: 2013 Annual Report,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, March 2014, p. 12, http://www.nti.org/analysis/reports/cns-global-incidents-and-trafficking-database/.

[xiii] Neil MacFarquhar, “Rate of Nuclear Thefts ‘Distribuging High,’ Monitoring Chief Says,” New York Times, October 27, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/28/world/28nuke.html?_r=0.

[xiv] “Chapter 6: Illicit Trafficking in Radioactive Materials,” in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks: a Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007), p. 134.

[xv] “Chapter 6: Illicit Trafficking in Radioactive Materials,” in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks: a Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007), p. 135.

[xvi] “Chapter 6: Illicit Trafficking in Radioactive Materials,” in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks: a Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007), p. 134.

[xvii] Matthew Bunn, and Yuri Morozov, Rolf Mowatt-Larrsen, Simon Saradzhyan, William Tobey, Viktor I. Yesin, and Pavel S. Zolotarev, The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment of Nuclear Terrorism, Report for Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, June 6, 2011, p. 37.

[xviii] Lyudmila Zaitseva, “Nuclear Trafficking: 20 Years in Review,” Contribution to the World Federation of Scientists Meeting, August 2010, p. 10.

[xix] “Chapter 6: Illicit Trafficking in Radioactive Materials,” in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks: a Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007), p. 132.

[xx] Lyudmila Zaitseva and Friedrich Steinhausler, “Nuclear Trafficking Issues in the Black Sea Region,” EU Non-Proliferation Papers, No. 39, April 2014, p. 11, http://www.nonproliferation.eu/documents/nonproliferationpapers/lyudmilazaitsevafriedrichsteinhausler53451ed0bbecb.pdf.

[xi] “Chapter 6: Illicit Trafficking in Radioactive Materials,” in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks: a Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007), p. 132-133.

[xii] “Chapter 6: Illicit Trafficking in Radioactive Materials,” in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks: a Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007), p. 133.