Time for Global Action Against Radiological Threats
Image Credit: Flickr/IAEA Imagebank

Time for Global Action Against Radiological Threats


As a general proposition, the security of nuclear and radiological materials has been a global concern since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when there were fears that these materials and expertise from Soviet Union would fall into the wrong hands.

But the issue only really gained serious attention only after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. In its aftermath of the incident, there were genuine worries that terrorists may get hold of these materials.

The fears are not unfounded – according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), there were a total of 2,889 confirmed incidents involving nuclear and radiological materials between 1993 and 2015. Though only around 25 countries around the world have nuclear materials in their possession, radiological sources are far more widely available because of their dual-use nature and their use for medicinal, industrial, and agricultural purposes.

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While there are a number of radioactive materials, not all pose serious risks. Some of the high-risk category materials include cobalt-60, cesium-137, iridium-192, strontium-90, americium-241, californium-258, plutonium-238, and radium-226. The risks of each of these sources depends on the amount of radioisotope present in the source, the kind of exposure, and the kind of radiation it emits, among other things. Cesium-137 is one of the materials which raises concerns as it is easily available because of its large-scale use in the medical and other commercial sectors. There have been a number of incidents of theft and illicit trafficking of cesium-137.

Radiological material in the hands of terrorists could pose serious risks because it could be used it to develop a dirty bomb, what is called a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD). Their widespread use makes it impractical to control them. While these materials cannot be used to make weapons of mass destruction (WMD), they could create massive disruption.

An RDD weapon will not result in mass casualties. But they could cause mass panic, especially in places that are densely populated. In addition, these weapons could have economic, psychological, and social impacts. Anne Harrington, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation outlined these in 2014: “An RDD detonated in a major metropolitan area could result in economic costs in the billions of dollars as a result of evacuations, relocations, cleanup, and lost wages.”

In addition to RDDs, radiological materials can also be used to make a Radiation Emission Device (RED), which can spread radiation to a large number of people if kept in an enclosed location such as a train compartment.

While national level measures need to be introduced and streamlined, equally important is the need to strengthen global measures to prevent and mitigate the threats from radiological weapons. Given its wide applications in the civilian sectors, maintaining a global inventory of radiological sources through national channels is an important requirement. A national registry of such materials can be made mandatory only if there is collective effort at the global level.

Additionally, monitoring “orphan” materials that have been discarded by hospitals and industries, military and laboratories also need to be brought under a global framework. A serious incident took place in Brazil in 1987 when a hospital that was using cesium-137 shifted to a new campus but carelessly discarded a teletherapy unit in its old premises. The locals who dismantled the unit had no clue of the dangerous material that they were being exposed to, resulting in four deaths.

Asia, too, is not immune from this radiological threat. There has been an incident in Bangkok when an individual was arrested with 66 pounds of cesium-137. There was also an incident in India in 2010 that involved Cobalt-60. Each of these incidents happened due to oversight, improper handling and disposal of radiological sources. All of these are indicative of the flaws in the current systems and regulations and therefore suggestive of the urgent need to write or strengthen global measures for radiological security.

Despite the high-risks from radiological sources, there are no legally-binding mechanisms regulating the spread and use of these sources.  The IAEA has, for instance, a non-legally binding “Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources,” published in January 2004 but these, as the name suggests, are merely suggestions for states to voluntarily adopt. There is an additional document called the “Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources,” approved and issued originally in September 2004, which is also not mandatory.

Therefore, one of the first steps that the IAEA members and others must consider are ways to review and strengthen the existing international radiological security measures. Developing a binding agreement for securing radiological materials and expanding the support base for the IAEA Code of Conduct will be the first baby step to developing more holistic measures.

It is a shame that all the IAEA member states are not yet parties to the Code of Conduct. While many countries have argued that there must be a binding Convention developed for radiological security, it is more important to get sufficient endorsements to the existing Code before moving towards a formal, mandatory Convention. Also, given the current state of relations among the great powers, the likelihood of developing consensus, especially for mandatory, legal instruments appears bleak.

Therefore, states must consider simpler and pragmatic steps to control pilferage of radioactive sources especially those used in medical facilities, as they are least protected physically. Better licensing procedures and accounting of materials used in industries and medical sectors also need to be instituted to avoid theft and illegal possession.

Meanwhile, as a long-term solution, states need to work on alternate technologies to reduce dependency on such high-risk sources. The IAEA has, for instance, begun exploring alternate sources to cobalt-60 and cesium-137, which are two of the most widely used radiological materials used in hospitals and industries. But states also need to be given incentives to make the shift from cobalt-60 and cesium-137 to less riskier options.

Last but not the least, there should be a global effort to convening forums such as the Nuclear Security Summit for radiological security that can bring focused attention to an otherwise neglected area of security. Such an initiative could bring multiple stakeholders including industry who could also share their best practices which may help in shaping future instruments.

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