Tracking and trafficking: monitoring the movement of nuclear material

JP Casey 17 April 2020 (Last Updated June 9th, 2020 13:08)

The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency notes that there were six incidents related to the trafficking or malicious use of nuclear materials in 2019. We consider how this figure relates to data from previous years, and what the body’s role is in ensuring safety in the nuclear sector.

Tracking and trafficking: monitoring the movement of nuclear material
The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency notes that there were six incidents related to the trafficking or malicious use of nuclear materials in 2019.

Nuclear power has enjoyed several years of expanded production worldwide, with the World Nuclear Association reporting that 2018 marked the eighth consecutive year that global nuclear power generation increased, with 217 TWh added between 2018 and 2012. Nuclear power provided 10.2% of the world’s power in 2018, and with 449 operating reactors around the world, nuclear is not a distant theoretical source of power, but an ingrained part of the world’s energy infrastructure right now.

However, despite these gains, nuclear remains a controversial topic in the energy sector, with opinion torn between welcoming it as a key contributor to a fossil fuel-free future, and fears over its safety credentials. These concerns are not unfounded, with dramatic incidents such as the Fukushima disaster and more long-term threats such as the dangers of untreated nuclear waste casting doubt over the power source’s future.

A recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has highlighted a different safety concern, the threat of the illegal trafficking of nuclear materials. While the IAEA’s report shows latest trafficking figures are in line with those of previous years, the mere existence of the illegal trading of nuclear material is a cause for concern, and raises questions about both the viability of nuclear power and the influence of sector regulators to enforce laws governing compliance and reporting.

Are new incidents a cause for alarm?

In February, the IAEA released its annual report into nuclear trafficking at a conference on safety and counter-terrorism in the nuclear industry. According to these figures, there were 189 cases of what the IAEA calls incidents of “unauthorised activities and events,” reported voluntarily by 36 of the IAEA’s 140 participating states.

The IAEA divides these events into three categories: ones that are connected with trafficking or malicious use, ones where the motivation is unclear, and ones that are proven to be unrelated to criminal activity. Of these 189 incidents, six were classified in the first category, ‘incidents of trafficking or malicious use’, but according to the IAEA, this figure is neither necessarily unexpected nor a cause for alarm.

“The figures are comparable to the annual average number of reported incidents that occurred over the last ten years,” said Scott Purvis, section head of information management at the IAEA division of nuclear security. Commenting on the frequency of malicious events, he continued that, “this is not unusual, although it does continue a slight downward trend since a peak of 20 such incidents around 15 years ago.

“The typical number of incidents related to trafficking or malicious use is around 5% of all incidents reported in a year.”

This generally positive trend continues across the types of cases reported to the IAEA. Group one incidents, relating to criminal activity, fell from seven to six between 2018 and 2019; group two incidents, where the motivation is unclear, fell from around 38 to closer to 20 over this period; and group three incidents, which are not connected to malicious activities, fell considerably, from over 120 to around 70.

Purvis pointed to the advisory work of the IAEA as a potential contributor to this decline, saying that the body “continuously supports countries requesting assistance to prevent nuclear and other radioactive material from falling out of regulatory control by developing nuclear security guidance and offering training and technical advice on enhancing security at nuclear facilities and during transportation, improving material controls and improving systems for detection, response, and recovery.”

While these figures may be somewhat skewed – the IAEA reclassified its historic data in 2017, so figures from more recent years “cannot be directly compared” to older data, according to the body – the trend is generally positive, and one that benefits from the body’s longstanding commitment to transparency and reporting.

International cooperation and voluntary support

The IAEA relies heavily on its Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), a database of nuclear trafficking and reporting incidents that was established in 1995, both to understand the history of nuclear trade and trafficking and inform future policy decisions. Yet it is the voluntary nature of the database, where contributing states are encouraged to opt-in to disclose nuclear trafficking incidents they have independently uncovered, that makes the database so effective.

“It is a unique asset in the IAEA’s work to strengthen nuclear security, especially because the incident data is provided directly by participating states,” said Purvis. “The shared information helps countries with the retrieval of lost or stolen material and the prosecution of suspected criminals.

“A participating state can study the information and acquire information on other incidents through online access to the ITDB if they wish to analyse further, or contact the affected state directly.”

The combination of voluntary sharing of information and direct contact helps foster a culture of close cooperation and mutual respect between nation states and the IAEA, where the former is trusted to investigate into and report on incidents within its borders, and the latter disseminates this information without interfering in the work of individual governments. The IAEA considers confidentiality and security to be key elements of its database, as they help to maintain the integrity and trust of the entire exercise, and so takes great care when releasing information; figures are published only at IAEA events and through “points of contact” based in countries relevant to the data being released, with only a small number of IAEA staff able to access the entire database.

This approach has paid dividends, with the database containing an impressive breadth and depth of information. While the ITDB’s tripartite classification of the motives behind tracking incidents is inherently subjective, and could be subject to scrutiny, there is little arguing with the data it has collected. The IAEA’s latest report noted, for instance, that the majority of the group one incidents reported in 2019 “involved gram qualities” of nuclear material, implying that they were traded to test the strength of regulatory bodies, rather than as part of an established underground supply chain.

Indeed, the IAEA commented that “many trafficking incidents could be characterised as ‘amateur’ or opportunistic in nature, as demonstrated by ad-hoc planning and a lack of resources and technical proficiency.” While the raw data by itself could imply a much more entrenched illicit supply chain, the above is proof of a positive conclusion that would be impossible to make without the success of the ITDB.

The nuclear supply chain strengths and shortcomings

Purvis noted that, in addition to the absence of a malicious underground supply chain, the above-board supply chain is effectively pushing out illicit trading.

“In general, over the years there has been a considerable reduction in the amounts and the frequency of sensitive nuclear materials being trafficked,” he said. “Of the 290 incidents reported since the inception of the ITDB involving trafficking or malicious use, 12 included highly enriched uranium (HEU) and six included plutonium.

“Where incidents were once reported involving kilograms of HEU, the latest were reports involving only tens of grams, with the last having occurred in 2011. It could be argued that this reflects the enhanced measures by states to maintain control of these materials. Similarly, there remains relatively few incidents involving highly radioactive sources.”

However, he noted that there remains work to do, especially with regard to the transport and storage of nuclear material, where substances can move between countries, and thus regulatory frameworks, or outside of regions with established and well-enforced laws altogether. He noted that a “significant” amount of the IAEA’s work goes towards supporting member states with the safe transport and storage of nuclear material, but this may be an instance in which the voluntary, opt-in nature of the IAEA suffers from shortcomings. The body actively avoids stepping on the toes of national governing bodies, and while this is beneficial in relation to its database and reporting work, this does leave the IAEA relatively unable to enforce its own policy advice.

Purvis pointed to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the world’s only international legally-binding work to ensure the physical protection of nuclear material, as a binding framework for IAEA members to commit to.

The convention aims to directly combat the dangers around storage and transport Purvis identified in the latest round of ITDB data. Coming into force in 1980, and amended further in 2005, all IAEA member states are required to follow its regulations, but the work is undermined by the IAEA’s deference to the independence of its member states.

The document notes that “the responsibility for the establishment, implementation and maintenance of a physical protection regime within a state party rests entirely with that state,” and makes it explicit that “nothing in this Convention shall be interpreted as affecting the sovereign rights of a state,” highlighting the admirable hands-off approach of the IAEA, but one that prevents the body from enforcing all of its ideas.

These shortcomings serve to highlight the importance of a cross-industry approach to dealing with the tracking and monitoring of nuclear material, where different actors have different responsibilities; the IAEA is an excellent advisory body with an effective central database, but for its suggestions to be made into policy, support from national governments across the world will be needed.