Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
DRAFT Overview of The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database
The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database is the only publicly available database of its kind and is produced by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) for the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Previous annual reports include key findings and policy recommendations, while this year’s database features an interactive visual tour of the data.
Scroll down to view the full report.
Media inquiries about the database or accompanying graphics can be directed to Jessica Varnum at [email protected]. Graphics by CNS’s David Steiger.
The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database is the only publicly available database of incidents involving nuclear and other radioactive materials. Since 2013, CNS has released this report for the Nuclear Threat Initiative as an annual report. However, amidst the backdrop of major disruptions to the global order throughout 2020 and 2021 while this data was collected, this two-year aggregate report paints a more accurate picture of incident numbers than would have been possible with annual reports. COVID-related delays in national reporting meant that a two-year aggregate report would more accurately capture where true gaps in reporting existed for 2020 and 2021, versus where national reporting authorities simply required more time than usual to release incident numbers. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions complicated international cooperation and forced national regulatory authorities to adapt their operations in unprecedented ways—including to remote work, as well as remote licensing, inspections, and transportation during extended lockdowns in many countries. These disruptions collectively heightened the risk of nuclear and other radioactive materials being lost or stolen from regulatory control and used for malicious purposes.
Deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States, even before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, have stymied progress on nuclear and other radioactive materials security issues. While these challenges dominate the attention of the international community, the threat of radiological crime and terrorism remains high, and the ease of access to such materials will certainly increase in unstable regions. War and instability in Ukraine have heightened radioactive materials security challenges given intermittent Ukrainian regulatory control over key territories and sites such as Chernobyl. While any incidents associated with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine are outside the scope of the 2020-2021 report, they are a critical part of the larger picture of why radioactive materials security continues to be a critical issue for global safety and security.
Between 2020 and 2021, CNS found 352 new global incidents of nuclear and other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control. At an average of about 176 incidents per year (or roughly one incident every other day), this figure is consistent with annual incident numbers observed in the previous nine years of data collection. Three key trends characterize the data, and are detailed in this report:
The 2020-2021 dataset shows that the security of nuclear and other radioactive materials remains a persistent global safety and security concern, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accurate incident data is vital to developing and implementing security best practices and instilling a strong security culture. The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database exists to give researchers and policymakers a big-picture perspective on incidents of nuclear and other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control.
The types of materials involved in the incidents tracked by the CNS database underscore how crucial it is to prevent nuclear and other radioactive materials from falling into the wrong hands. Fortunately, only ten reported incidents in 2020-2021 involved nuclear material, and none of the incidents involved materials of sufficient quantity or quality (in terms of isotopic composition) to be useable in a nuclear weapon. However, 43.5 percent of incidents involved isotopes identified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as particularly well-suited for use in a radiological dispersal device (RDD), a type of radiological weapon criminals or terrorists could easily construct with access to the right materials.1
A concerning development in recent years is the trend in attempts by right-wing extremist groups to acquire nuclear and other radioactive materials.2 The 2021 dataset records a troubling incident of an individual arrested in possession of homemade explosive devices containing radioactive material and Nazi and Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia.3 Incidents such as these are not only concerning in isolation, but the occurrence of similar incidents in several countries in the database from previous years suggests a convergence in tactics among far-right groups internationally. These incidents underscore the necessity of securing radioactive materials, and of treating right-wing extremism as a serious threat to national and global security.
The pandemic’s full impact on both the occurrence and reporting of incidents involving nuclear and other radioactive materials remains unclear. Overall, the data indicates that the national incident reporting systems of the majority of the six countries that routinely publicly report incidents have met the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and reported incident numbers are consistent with pre-pandemic levels. However, Belgium and Japan had a significant decline in reported incidents.4 Although it is impossible to assign a clear causal relationship between the pandemic and incident reporting, COVID-19 may have disrupted incident reporting in these two countries.
In the three countries that have historically reported the highest number of incidents—the United States, Canada, and France—the data suggests that there was a significant decline in spring 2020, concurrent with the outbreak of the pandemic in those countries and the imposition of lockdowns. This is clearly illustrated by contrasting Figure 1: Incidents by Month, 2020 with Figure 2: Incidents by Month, 2013-2019. It is possible that fewer incidents occurred per month as compared with previous years, perhaps because of pandemic-related restrictions on the movement of people and goods. It is also possible that many incidents went unreported due to a variety of pandemic disruptions, including to national reporting regimes.
However, after the interruption of the early months of the pandemic, total incident numbers in Canada, France, and the United States stabilized and returned to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, more incidents were reported in the United States in 2021 (150) than in any previous year included in the database. The data comport with the experience at U.S. government agencies as conveyed in a CNS interview with an official involved with incident reporting, who indicated that after a three or four month pause to work out health and safety protocols, the pandemic did not significantly disrupt the execution of the mission.6
Only a few countries consistently report incidents involving nuclear and other radioactive materials, which suggests that the database records only a fraction of actual incidents occurring each year worldwide. For the 2020-2021 database, researchers located documents released by Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare (Rostpotrebnadzor) which support this assumption. According to the documents, 192 “cases of radiation accidents and situations of sanitary and epidemiological nature associated with loss of control over sources of ionizing radiation” occurred in 2019, and 209 took place in 2018 (the two years for which data is available). The details of the individual incidents were not publicized and therefore cannot be entered into the database, and there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence with incidents recorded in the CNS database, because the Russian dataset includes incidents which do not meet the criteria for CNS database inclusion (e.g., incidents of elevated radiation levels detected in humans during border crossings). Nevertheless, this aggregate Russian data suggests that radioactive materials incidents occur in the Russian Federation and are reported to the Russian government at approximately the same frequency as in the United States.7 However, as Russia does not publicly report incidents, all Russian incidents in the CNS database are derived from media reports. Only 50 such incidents have been recorded since 2013, with six of these occurring in 2020-2021.
One interesting trend in the 2020-2021 incident data is a notable decline in the number of incidents associated with vehicles, either in transit or stationary. In the years 2013-2019, 41 percent of all incidents occurred while the material was either in transit or went missing from a stationary vehicle; during 2020-2021, that declined to 26 percent. It is plausible that the imposition of pandemic control measures limiting the movement of people and goods may be responsible for this development. It is also possible that fewer such incidents were intercepted or reported due to pandemic challenges to countries’ regulatory or law-enforcement systems. Although fewer than in past years, many incidents still occurred in moving or stationary vehicles, illustrating the vulnerability of materials during transit.
Over half of all incidents reported in the database historically involve what CNS classifies as “human failure,” in which those responsible for the material either acted carelessly or disregarded appropriate procedures. Cases of loss, misrouting during shipment, and inventory discrepancies are among the types of incidents in which human failure is presumed to be a contributing factor. 2020 and 2021 saw an uptick in incidents ascribed to human failure: from about 52 percent from 2013-2019 to 64 percent of all incidents.
Data between 2020 and 2021 shows that the issue of the security of nuclear and other radioactive materials remains a challenge, especially in an age of increasing global instability. The COVID-19 pandemic seems not to have diminished the overall volume or severity of incidents; rather, many incidents that had previously occurred on stationary or moving vehicles seem to have shifted to being caused by human failure. If the lifting of remaining pandemic restrictions and return to normal operations is not managed carefully, it is possible that transit-related incidents will return to pre-pandemic levels while human failure incidents remain elevated, causing incidents to spike in the post-pandemic world.
Deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States throughout 2020 and 2021 had already complicated international efforts to address nuclear and radiological security issues, but the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the possibility of bilateral cooperation on these issues for the near future. Nevertheless, the incident data collected for the 2020-2021 CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Report provides the basis for a renewed argument for why the security of nuclear and other radioactive materials must remain high on the global agenda. This cannot be forgotten even as the world faces a multitude of other challenges, from entering the fourth year of a global pandemic to renewed conflict between Russia and the West.
The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database is the only publicly available incident database and is generated using open-source data. By contrast, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), which covers many of the same incidents, relies on voluntary reporting by the 142 participating states, and is only available in its full form to participating states’ governments and certain international organizations.
The CNS database tracks incidents involving nuclear and other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control—whether regulatory control was lost unintentionally (such as via loss or misrouting), or intentionally (such as losses due to theft or attempted trafficking). Some incidents also involve material that was never under appropriate regulatory control, but which should have been.
The CNS database includes incidents reported since January 1, 2013. The 2020-2021 subset is pulled from global searches in eleven major languages. Incident data is drawn from official reports issued by national governments and media reports. While the level of detail in each incident entry depends on the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the associated sources, at a minimum all entries include an incident report date, a location, and a unique seven-digit database entry code. To provide more accurate locational data and improve compatibility with modern data visualization software, the database now includes latitude and longitude coordinates for each incident. Researchers have also attempted to piece together additional details for each entry, such as the type of material or device involved, its typical application, and the details of its recovery where applicable.
Acknowledgements: Several CNS Graduate Research Assistants and undergraduate interns made significant research contributions to this report and the CNS database: Thanks to Virginia Kerr, Hollis Rammer, Rachel Flatt, Eleanor Krabill, Elizaveta Levina, Sam Naumann, Jasmine Owens, Hollis Rammer, Inna Rodina, Isabel Scal, and Courtney Tillman. The authors also wish to thank CNS staff experts George Moore, Elena Sokova, and Jessica Varnum for their peer review of the report.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.