Recorded Incidents Regarding Nuclear Accident, Smuggling – Analysis


Plutonium used as poison

In Germany, a man attempted to poison his ex-wife with plutonium stolen from WAK (Wiederaufbereitungsanlage Karlsruhe), a small scale reprocessing plant where he worked. He did not steal a large amount of plutonium, just some rags used for wiping surfaces and a small amount of liquid waste. The man was eventually sent to prison. At least two people besides the criminal were also contaminated by the plutonium. Two flats in Landau in the Rhineland Palatinate were contaminated and had to be cleaned at a cost of two million euro.

The Litvinenko murder

In 2006 former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was killed in London by unknown persons using the short lived alpha emitter polonium-210. He had been poisoned with a radioactive isotope of polonium-210.

Kramatorsk incident

A small capsule containing highly radioactive isotope cesium-137 was found during 1989 inside the concrete wall in an apartment building in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. It is believed that the capsule was originally a part of a measurement device and it was lost sometime during late 1970s and ended up mixed with gravel, used to construct that building in 1980. By the time the capsule was discovered around 6 residents of the building died from leukaemia and 17 more received varying doses of radiation.

Trafficking in Radioactive and Nuclear Materials

From 1993 to 2006, the IAEA confirmed 1080 illicit trafficking incidents reported by participating countries. Of the 1080 confirmed incidents, 275 incidents involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activity, 332 incidents involved theft or loss of nuclear or other radioactive materials, 398 incidents involved other unauthorized activities, and in 75 incidents the reported information was not sufficient to determine the category of incident.

Several hundred additional incidents have been reported in various open sources, but are not yet confirmed. Information reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows that a persistent problem with the illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials, thefts, losses and other unauthorized activities. The threatening episode of nuclear fuel rods theft from a reactor in the Democratic Republic of Congo used for smuggling by smugglers who than wanted to sell them as ingredients for a nuclear weapon manifested the alarming situation for the potential demand by terrorist for nuclear weapon and related material.

According to IAEA, nuclear materials include nuclear source material such as natural uranium, depleted uranium, thorium, plutonium, and uranium enriched in the isotopes U-233 or U-235. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) known as weapons, usable material are considered to pose the greatest proliferation risk because they are used to produce nuclear weapons. IAEA developed a database in 1993 to monitor and record incidents involving illicit trafficking in nuclear materials. Sixty nine countries or about one half of IAEA’s member states currently participate in the database. On December 31, 2001, IAEA listed 181 confirmed incidents involving the illicit trafficking in nuclear materials, including weapons-usable material.

According to the IAEA a confirmed incident is one in which the information has been verified to IAEA through official points of contact from the reporting country. Of the 181 confirmed illicit trafficking incidents reported by IAEA, 17 involved either HEU or plutonium. More than half of the 17 incidents involving weapons-usable material occurred during 1993-95. The remaining cases occurred during 1999-2001.

Smuggling Incidents Involving Nuclear Weapons-Usable Material since 1992

Date Source of material Country where
material seized
Material/quantity How material was found
May 1992 Russia
(Luch Scientific Production Assoc.)
Russia 1.5 kilograms
(90 percent HEU)
Police investigation
May 1993 Russia Lithuania 0.1 kilogram
(50 percent HEU)
Police investigation
July 1993 Russia Russia 1.8 kilograms
(36 percent HEU)
Police investigation
November 1993 Russia Russia 4.5 kilograms
(20 percent HEU)
Police investigation
March 1994 Russia Russia 3.05 kilograms
(90 percent HEU)
Police investigation
May 1994 Unspecified Germany 0.006 kilograms plutonium-239 Police investigation
June 1994 Russia Germany 0.0008 kilograms
(87.8 percent HEU)
Police investigation
July 1994 Russia Germany 0.00024 kilograms plutonium Police investigation
August 1994 Russia Germany 0.4 kilograms of plutonium Police investigation
December 1994 Russia Czech Republic 2.7 kilograms
(87.7 percent HEU)
Police investigation
June 1995 Russia Czech Republic 0.0004 grams
(87.7 percent HEU)
Police investigation
June 1995 Russia Czech Republic 0.017 kilograms
(87.7 percent HEU)
Police investigation
June 1995 Russia Russia 1.7 kilograms
(21 percent HEU)
Police investigation
May 1999 Russia Bulgaria 0.004 kilograms of HEU Interdiction at border by Bulgarian customs.
October 1999 Unspecified Kyrgyzstan 0.0015 kilograms of plutonium Police investigation
April 2000 Unspecified but Russia suspected Georgia 0.9 kilograms of HEU (30 percent) Possible combination of radiation detection equipment at border and police investigation
September 2000 Possibly Russia
and/or Ukraine
Georgia 0.0004 kilograms of plutonium Police investigation
December 2000 Germany Germany Less than 1 milligram of plutonium Radioactive contamination disclosed in a test.
January 2001 Unspecified Greece Approximately 0.003 kilograms of plutonium Police investigation
July 2001 Unspecified France About 0.005 kilograms of HEU
(approximately 80 percent enriched)
Police investigation

Note: Uranium enriched with 20 percent or higher U-235 is considered weapons-usable material. One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. One thousand grams equal 1 kilogram and 1 gram is equal to about 0.04 ounces, or the weight of a paperclip. Source: GAO Report, May 2002: NUCLEAR NONPROLIFERATION: U.S. Efforts to Help Other Countries Combat Nuclear Smuggling Need Strengthened Coordination and Planning

It can be analysed that the potential demand for nuclear weapons and related materials by terrorist organizations cannot be overruled. Experts recognize that 2-3 dozen terrorist organizations are interested in acquiring WMDs.

Moreover; nuclear smuggling cases indicate that illicit traffickers are at work and the scale of their activities may increase in future. So the probability of nuclear terrorism is increasing and the consequences for urban and industrial societies could be catastrophic.

From the given examples we discussed earlier we can say that there are violent groups operating in the world and the have a deep desire to acquire nuclear weapons and related materials. Furthermore, these groups, ingrained by years of hatred and inflamed by international policies and actions, might be motivated them to use these weapons.

Muhammad Jawad Hashmi

Mr. MJ Hashmi is M.Phil in Defence and Strategic Studies. He is an Author of a book entitled as “Nuclear Terrorism in Pakistan: Myth of Reality?” His Area of interest is Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Safety and Security issues in Pakistan, Arms Control and Disarmament, Nuclear Non-Proliferation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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