Illegal trade in nuclear and radiological material

Nuclear material originates from nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants and research reactors. Radiological materials are substances with a rather low radiation, used in industry and hospitals (particularly radiotherapy). Highly enriched uranium, produced in large facilities, is needed to produce an atomic bomb. The estimated value of this material is at least US $10,000 per gramme and would be a highly lucrative business for smugglers.

Radiological material, such as cobalt, strontium or caesium, can mostly be found in hospitals and industrial plants. These substances would constitute a grave danger in the hands of terrorists in particular who are interested in building a ‘dirty bomb’. In contrast to a nuclear weapon, there is no nuclear chain reaction in a ‘dirty bomb’. With a "dirty bomb" (also called radiological dispersal device) radioactive material is dispersed over a certain area by detonating conventional explosives, such as dynamite. The radiological materials do not influence its explosive force. The views on the actual dangers of such a bomb differ, but the psychological effects of a bomb contaminated with radioactivity alone would be dramatic.

In 2001, two cases where radioactive material was stolen in Germany attracted considerable attention. A metalworker of the decommissioned reprocessing plant in Karlsruhe had smuggled cleaning rags contaminated with caesium-137 and a vial with a plutonium mix past the security guards. At a routine urine test, the higher radiation level was detected. In the other case, a former Siemens employee in Bavaria had taken six samples of 0.8 to 4.4 grammes of radioactive or radiological material between 1971 and 1981 in a self-made Perspex flask. He kept the material, amongst which 0.8 grammes of highly enriched uranium, for 20 years in his home in a storage room. The scandal was uncovered when the pensioner presented the radioactive and radiological materials to the Bavarian ministry for the environment for inspection.

In both cases, the material was not offered to the black market, but they show that in Germany, too, the theft of and illicit trade in radioactive material is possible.

According to the database on nuclear smuggling, theft and orphan radiation sources, 39 kg of highly enriched uranium and plutonium were seized by officials worldwide between 1992 and 2005 . It mostly was in possession of employees working in nuclear facilities and who took advantage of the lax security measures to improve their financial situation. It is, however, suspected that this may only be the tip of the iceberg and that a far larger amount of highly enriched uranium is in circulation illegally and that, in the meantime, organized criminal networks, such as those from international drugs trafficking, participate in the trade and have made it more professional.

The source for radioactive and radiological materials—in particular after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s to the early 2000s—could mainly be found in the successor states of the former Soviet Union, where security measures for the stockpiles of highly enriched uranium planned to be deployed in nuclear weapons ranged from excellent to shocking. One spectacular case in 1994 is an example of this: In St Petersburg, a man was arrested carrying nearly three kilogrammes of highly enriched uranium, which he had stolen from a nuclear facility. The centre for the nuclear black market was Turkey.

There is a variety of legal documents that deal with the possession of and trade in nuclear material. Article 328 of the German criminal code contains stipulations on the ‘illegal handling of radioactive materials and other dangerous substances and goods’. The German atomic energy act (Atomgesetz) regulates how to deal with nuclear energy.

Besides national laws, there are various international agreements, such as the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, (CPPNM), UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and the 1540 Committee resulting from this and, even though it is not legally binding, the International Atomic Energy Agency Code of Conduct.

Sources and further information:

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