Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
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.
Media inquiries about the database or accompanying graphics can be directed to Jessica Varnum at [email protected]. Graphics by CNS’s David Steiger.
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 2019, CNS researchers 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Your are currently on
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.
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.
Archives of Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, 2013-2018. (CNS)
Visually explore global incidents and trafficking. (CNS)