Negligence to Blame in All 73 Incidents of Missing Radioactive Materials in 2013: Report

A New York Police Department officer searches a van following a radiological "dirty bomb" threat in August 2007 in New York City. A new expert report found negligence to be a factor in every documented incident last year in which radioactive materials either went lost or were stolen.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
March 21, 2014, 11:09 a.m.

Neg­li­gence was in­volved in all 73 in­cid­ents last year in which ra­dio­act­ive sub­stances re­por­ted went miss­ing, con­cludes a new ex­pert re­port on nuc­le­ar traf­fick­ing.

The re­port find­ing by the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies could sug­gest there is much work yet to be done in in­ter­na­tion­al ef­forts to im­prove se­cur­ity around ra­di­olo­gic­al sub­stances that might be seized by ter­ror­ists and used to con­struct a so-called “dirty bomb.” This type of device could com­bine ra­di­olo­gic­al ma­ter­i­als and ex­plos­ives to con­tam­in­ate pop­u­lated areas.

The study, pub­lished on Wed­nes­day, ex­amined in­cid­ents in which both atom­ic and non-nuc­le­ar ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als went un­ac­coun­ted for. Of the 153 doc­u­mented in­cid­ents last year, 92 per­cent in­volved non-nuc­le­ar ra­dio­act­ive sub­stances util­ized in the med­ic­al and in­dus­tri­al fields, ac­cord­ing to a sum­mary of the re­port’s find­ings. 

“Few in­cid­ents in­volved the most dan­ger­ous ma­ter­i­als, and none were re­por­ted to have in­volved ma­ter­i­al that was nuc­le­ar weapons-us­able in form or quant­ity,” the sum­mary states.

To re­duce the pro­spects of fu­ture in­cid­ents stem­ming from neg­li­gence, the re­port re­com­mends “im­proved train­ing in nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als se­cur­ity and en­hanced end-user ac­count­ab­il­ity.”

Lead­ers from 53 na­tions are gath­er­ing in The Hag­ue, Neth­er­lands, on Monday and Tues­day to re­view the cur­rent status of glob­al ef­forts to bet­ter lock down vul­ner­able ra­dio­act­ive and nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als. Some ex­perts have cri­ti­cized the bi­en­ni­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit pro­cess — which began with Pres­id­ent Obama host­ing the first such gath­er­ing in 2010 — for fo­cus­ing too much on atom­ic sub­stances at the ex­pense ra­di­olo­gic­al sources.

While a nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism at­tack could res­ult in a much great­er loss of life than a ra­di­olo­gic­al strike, most ana­lysts agree it would be easi­er for ex­trem­ists to ac­quire the in­gredi­ents they need to build a ra­di­olo­gic­al dirty bomb than get a hold of a nuc­le­ar weapon.

The Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies ana­lys­is re­lied on a data­base it built that col­lec­ted in­form­a­tion drawn from for­eign reg­u­lat­ory agen­cies, spe­cial­ized In­ter­net search en­gines and in­ter­na­tion­al news re­ports. It is sep­ar­ate from a data­base kept by the United Na­tions’ In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency, which also tracks in­cid­ents of lost or stolen plutoni­um, urani­um and oth­er ra­di­olo­gic­al sources.

The U.N. nuc­le­ar watch­dog doc­u­mented roughly 140 in­cid­ents last year of lost or un­au­thor­ized util­iz­a­tion of atom­ic and ra­dio­act­ive sub­stances, Re­u­ters re­por­ted on Fri­day. It is not clear if the IAEA data­base and the CNS data­base were us­ing dif­fer­ent meth­od­o­logy for col­lect­ing or as­sess­ing in­form­a­tion.

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