Safe but not Secure? Improving the Security of Radioactive Sources The Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention Program, The Stimson Center

Radioactive sources are in our hospitals, fields, and homes...

We live in a sea of radioactive sources. With numbers in the hundreds of thousands, they exist in every country in the world. They help us fight cancer, protect crops, make safer food and buildings, acquire resources buried deep underground and much more.

Safely used radiation makes our lives better.

But ill-used, it can kill and create fear. Consequently, for decades the world has focused on the safe use of the most hazardous sources, exemplified by guidance produced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Reducing The Threat of a "Dirty Bomb"

As terrorists and criminal organizations have become more willing to use any means to cause mass casualties, interest in the security of radioactive sources has grown and prompted the IAEA to publish the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources in 2004. After more than a decade, however, we know little about how countries have implemented this guidance and reduced the threat of a “dirty bomb” and other radiological weapons.

Transfering Radioactive Sources Across Borders

Additionally, to supplement the Code of Conduct, the IAEA published the Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources in 2011—a non-legally binding document. It provides recommendations and outlines best practices for the import and export of radioactive sources. The Guidance describes an ideal relationship between an importing and exporting country and describes what may be required on both a technical and administrative level for the proper international transfer of radioactive sources.

However, if countries choose to implement this Guidance, there is also a question of how it has been done and if it has been done effectively.

The Stimson Center identifies security elements...

To close this knowledge gap, the Stimson Center, with support from the Government of Finland, began by identifying 11 key security elements from the Code of Conduct:

  1. Existence of a national regulatory authority;
  2. Offenses or violations;
  3. Prohibitions;
  4. Imprisonment or fines (or both) for violations;
  5. Licensing;
  6. Inspections;
  7. National registry of sources (and/or licenses);
  8. List of controlled sources;
  9. Stakeholder training;
  10. Stakeholder awareness raising; and
  11. Public awareness raising.

And identifies the security strengths and weaknesses.

Building on data from the UN Security Council’s 1540 Committee, the Stimson Center then created a compendium of national laws and regulations in all UN Member States that include an explicit obligation to secure radioactive sources, related apparatus or facilities and then compared these measures. From this research, the Stimson Center identified 248 laws, regulations, or their equivalent found in 104 countries worldwide.

Comparing these 248 measures against the 11 key security elements derived from the Code, Stimson then examined the security strengths and shortcomings of each measure. It also developed a cumulative index of the national legal infrastructure for securing radioactive sources across each UN Member State.

Half of UN Member States have no laws and regulations.

At the national level, nearly half of UN Member States have no laws or regulations with an obligation to secure radioactive sources, and many more have national legal frameworks that include only a few of the key security elements of the non-binding Code of Conduct. Even some countries with highly developed legal frameworks for radiation safety have much less robust laws and regulations for security.

Measures for securing radioactive sources vary...

Among those countries that have a legal framework for securing radioactive sources, the measures in place generally involve a national authority, a licensing and inspection system, training for stakeholders, and some offenses and penalties. However, most do not feature a registry of sources, awareness raising for stakeholders and the public, criminal penalties, or even a national list of controlled sources. Moreover, even where present, these measures can vary wildly. Criminal penalties, for example, range from a few days of imprisonment to the death penalty.

Reporting Trade of Radiological Goods

In addition to their wide application for legitimate purposes, radioactive sources are commonly traded across the globe. According to UN COMTRADE Data from 2015 to 2018, 161 of the 163 countries that have reported trade of any type reported trade in radiological goods (i.e. radiological elements, isotopes, and compounds and/or radiological apparatus). 34 countries did not report any trade during that period, therefore the type of goods they are trading in is unknown. As of 2018, however, only 114 countries have committed to implementing the Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources.

Implementing Guidelines for Importing and Exporting These Goods

To better understand how these countries implement the Import-Export Guidance for these evidently common trade goods, the Stimson Center identified some of its key elements, such as:

  • Are export, re-exports, imports, transit and transshipment explicitly mentioned as part of the mandate of the national regulatory authority/authorities?
  • Are these transactions license-able?
  • Is trade without the required license a legal violation?
  • Are penalties attached to such violations?

Data gaps still exist...

As in the case of implementation of security elements, data gaps exist: full text of all national laws and regulations are not available or they are unclear about actual trade-licensing procedures. While a fuller analysis of the legal-regulatory data on all trading countries is underway, Stimson’s preliminary analysis suggests similar trends as those in the elements of radiological security discussed previously.

UN Member States Only Have a Few Key Security Elements

At the national level, nearly half of UN Member States have national legal frameworks that include only a few of the key security elements of the non-binding Guidance on Export and Import.

There are a few key elements of security missing in the legal framework...

  • Whereas export and import of radioactive materials are explicitly mentioned as license-able in a majority of the countries, the information on licensing procedures is missing from most.
  • Most countries do not maintain a registry of imported or exported materials and do not track export and import licenses they have granted.
  • Explicit references to trade in Category 1 or 2 radioactive sources occur only in a few laws – possibly because a majority of states regulate these as one among the nine “hazardous materials” or “dangerous goods.” Accordingly, penalties for trade violations vary between low and non-existent.
  • In a majority of countries, customs and/or police and/or border security personnel are the only enforcement agencies, and there appears to be no legal requirement for coordination between these non-technical (enforcement) agencies and the technical (licensing) agencies.

What's Next?

The Stimson Center has begun to engage the national nuclear regulatory authorities worldwide, the IAEA and other international bodies to update and improve its compendium. Equally important, it has begun analysis of the existing compendium to find ways that the international community could close these gaps. State adherence to the Code of Conduct, for example, has a significant association with a more robust legal framework to secure radioactive sources, so understanding what determines this association could help determine how to enhance implementation of the Code of Conduct. By making these two compendia on security and trade in radioactive sources and their analysis available to all, Stimson hopes to spark a new understanding of how to prevent terrorists and criminals from abusing the legitimate and important role of radioactive sources in our lives.

Interested in learning more about the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention's work?


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