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Overview of The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database

Part of The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database

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Overview of The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database

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Sam Meyer

Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Jakob Lengacher

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Sam Meyer

Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Jakob Lengacher
Jaewon Oh

What Do Seven Years of Incident Data Tell Us about Global Nuclear Security?

In 2019, researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) found 167 new incidents of nuclear and other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control globally. This is a slight increase from 156 incidents in the previous year, but broadly consistent with annual incident numbers observed in the past seven years of data collection. The data illustrates that incidents of nuclear and other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control remain a critical global security concern.

The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database is the only publicly available database of its kind and is produced by 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. Download the database.

Media inquiries about the database or accompanying graphics can be directed to Sam Meyer at [email protected]. Graphics by CNS’s David Steiger.

 

What Are the Trends in Nuclear and Radiological Security?

Since CNS researchers began gathering and analyzing incident data in 2013, the year-over-year data has been remarkably consistent, highlighting clear trends in global nuclear and radiological security. For example, the overwhelming majority of reported incidents occur in six countries: Belgium, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea, and the United States (83% of all incidents in 2019). Counterintuitively, this does not suggest that these countries have poor security standards and practices. Instead, these are the only six countries which mandate public reporting of incidents. For all other countries, only those incidents reported by the media are known publicly, and such incident reporting is spotty and inconsistent even in countries with relatively unrestricted media. As such, the high volume of incident reports in the database from the six routinely reporting countries is indicative of their commitment to minimizing nuclear and radiological security incidents. Reports often include notes about corrective actions and additional security measures put in place after each incident.

  • In March 2019, in Daytona, Florida, a hospital lost an Iodine-122 seed after it was removed from a patient. It was presumed taken to a medical incinerator, and the hospital instituted corrective measures to improve source security. 1 Although Iodine-122 is not classified as a radionuclide of concern, this example shows how routine, public reporting of incidents can increase accountability and contribute to a strong security culture. 2
  • Seven years of accumulated data also make clear that nuclear and other radioactive material is particularly vulnerable while it is in transit. 52% of 2019 incidents occurred while material was being moved from one location to another. Sometimes, the material was stolen along with the vehicle. In other cases, material was stolen from a stationary vehicle. Incidents sometimes result from failure to take even basic precautions to secure the material while it is in transit.
  • In September 2019, a density gauge was stolen from a truck in Mexico while the driver was inside a 7-11 convenience store (density gauges are pieces of measuring equipment that contain radioactive sources). 3
  • In September 2019, in Duluth, Minnesota, a technician drove off with a moisture density gauge without securing the equipment to the truck, or even closing the tailgate. 4

Over half of all incidents reported in the database involve what CNS classifies as “human failure,” in which those responsible for the material either acted carelessly or disregarded appropriate procedures. In such cases, strict observance of security protocols already in place would likely have prevented the incident. 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. Incidents involving human failure show that security measures are only as effective as the security cultures of the organizations and personnel responsible for their implementation.

  • In July 2019, in Richmond, Virginia, an employee failed to follow established procedures in checking out a nuclear gauge from the company inventory, and then abandoned the gauge rather than returning it (possibly out of fear of disciplinary action). 5
  • In July 2019, at Ft. Eustice in Virginia, the Air Force Defense Logistics Agency accidentally disposed of a chemical scanner containing a radioactive source as scrap. 6

Why Do We Track Incident Data?

Accurate incident data is of vital importance in developing and implementing security best practices and inculcating 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 that they stay out of the wrong hands. Fortunately, only six incidents in 2019 involved nuclear material, and none were of sufficient quantity or composition to be useable in a nuclear weapon. However, 47% 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 terrorists could easily construct with access to the right materials. 7 The 2019 number is consistent with past years, meaning possible acquisition of nuclear and other radioactive materials by domestic or international terrorist groups remains of special concern.

  • The abandonment of a highly radioactive cobalt-60 source in Islamic State-occupied Mosul, Iraq, for example, posed a particularly significant threat until its recovery in 2017. 8
  • More recent scholarship shows that domestic right-wing terrorist groups are also aware of and actively pursuing the capabilities to perpetrate radiological terrorism, conspiring in several documented instances to acquire the material necessary to carry out such attacks. 9

CNS research did not uncover any publicly reported incidents in 2019 involving terrorist groups. Rather, the year was notable for criminal activities involving such material.

  • In December 2019, a North Carolina man was sentenced to 78 months in prison under the federal nuclear terrorism statute for attempting to acquire polonium-210, with the intent to kill his roommate. 10
  • In April 2019, an Arizona man stabbed a convenience store clerk and stole three radioactive devices from his workplace in the midst of a crime spree. 11

Incidents such as these, in which radioactive materials are stolen with the explicit intent to cause harm, historically have been outliers. This uptick in incidents is troubling. It suggests that nefarious or unhinged individuals have both the means to acquire radioactive materials, and the motive to use them as weapons. In this context, the security and accountability of nuclear and other radioactive materials are crucial priorities. While neither individual in the 2019 incidents demonstrated the intent or capability to commit radiological terrorism, the fact that malicious actors can and do acquire radioactive materials for criminal purposes is troubling, and it suggests the significant volume of nuclear and other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control may hold continuing appeal both to criminal and terrorist actors.

About the Database

The CNS database is the only publicly available incident database and is generated using open source data. By contrast, the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), which covers many of the same incidents, relies on voluntary member state reporting, and is only available in its full form to participating states’ governments and certain international organizations. 12

  • Historically, the CNS and IAEA databases have reported similar numbers of incidents each year. In 2019, the ITDB reported 22 more incidents than CNS. 13
  • The CNS database includes a total of 1,205 incidents identified from 2013-2019, 167 of which occurred in 2019.

The CNS database tracks incidents involving nuclear and other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control—whether their status outside of regulatory control happened 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 should have been.

The database includes incidents reported since January 1, 2013, and is updated annually, with the 2019 subset being pulled from global searches in eleven major languages. Incident data is drawn from both the official reports issued by national governments and media reports. While the level of detail in each incident entry is dependent on the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the associated sources, at minimum all entries include an incident report date, a location, and a unique 7-digit database entry code. In an effort to provide more accurate locational data and improve compatibility with modern data visualization software, this year’s database 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 details of its recovery.

The authors thank Jessica Varnum, George Moore, Miles Pomper, and Elena Sokova for their peer review and helpful comments, as well as Virginia Kerr and Landin Hayter for their research contributions.

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Tutorial on Nuclear and Radiological Security

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Tutorial on Nuclear and Radiological Security

Nuclear and radiological security aims to ensure nuclear and other radioactive materials are secure from unauthorized access and theft, and that nuclear facilities are secure from sabotage.


Glossary

Radioactivity
Radioactivity: The spontaneous emission of radiation, generally alpha or beta particles, often accompanied by gamma rays, from the nucleus of an unstable isotope.
Isotope
Isotope: Any two or more forms of an element having identical or very closely related chemical properties and the same atomic number (the same number of protons in their nuclei), but different atomic weights or mass numbers (a different number of neutrons in their nuclei). Uranium-238 and uranium-235 are isotopes of uranium.
Radiological dispersal device (RDD)
Radiological dispersion device (RDD): Any device, other than a nuclear explosive device, designed to spread radioactive material.

Sources

  1. CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, 2019. Entry #2019047.
  2. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Table 1: Radionuclides of Concern,” Radioactive Material Security, 25 November 2019, www.nrc.gov.
  3. CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, 2019. Entry #2019122.
  4. CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, 2019. Entry #2019120.
  5. CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, 2019. Entry #2019086.
  6. CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, 2019. Entry #2019102.
  7. “Table 1: Radionuclides of Concern,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission, www.nrc.gov.
  8. Joby Warrick and Loveday Morris, “How ISIS nearly stumbled on the ingredients for a ‘dirty bomb,’” The Washington Post, 22 July 2017, www.washingtonpost.com.
  9. Will Cathcart and Joseph Ari Epstein, “White Supremacists Want a Dirty Bomb,” Foreign Policy, 16 August 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com; BreAnne K. Fleer, “Radiological-weapons threats: case studies from the extreme right,” The Nonproliferation Review, 2020, 1-18, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10736700.2020.1775987.
  10. U.S. Department of Justice, “North Carolina Man Sentenced to 78 Months for Attempted Possession of Radioactive Material,” Western District of North Carolina for US Attorney’s Office, 13 December 2019, www.justice.gov.
  11. Mackenzie Shuman, “‘I have snapped,’ said man accused of stabbing clerk, stealing radioactive items,” Arizona Republic and AZ Central, 29 April 2019, www.azcentral.com.
  12. “Incident and Trafficking Database,” IAEA, 2019, www.iaea.org.
  13. “Incident and Trafficking Database, 2020 Fact Sheet,” IAEA, 2020, www.iaea.org.

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