International concern at radioactive smuggling growing

30 November 1998

Greta Dicus, a commissioner at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has warned that control over radioactive sources in activities other than power generation is not tight enough. Speaking at the first International Conference in the Safety of Radiation Sources and the Security of Radioactive Sources in Dijon, France, organised by the IAEA, Interpol, the European Commission and the World Customs Organisation, she said that the lack of regulation means the chances of accidents, or of material being lost, are higher than they should be. Accidents have occurred in the fields of irradiation, industrial radiography and teletherapy.

“Each year, the NRC receives about 200 reports of lost, stolen or abandoned radioactive sources and devices,” she said. “It is important to note that such reports are received only when licencees recall that they have a source, know that it is lost or stolen, know that there is a requirement to report the loss or theft and make that report. Therefore, the volume of reports received probably represents but the tip of the iceberg.” One area particularly effected by this problem is the international trade in waste scrap. There has been a significant increase in the quantities of recycled metal which is radioactively contaminated entering the international market. In recent months the Aceranex steel plant in Spain unwittingly melted steel contaminated with caesium 137 and a scrap metal dealer in northern England found part of a radioactive reactor vessel in a shipment of recycled steel from Russia.

The steel melted at Aceranex was probably contaminated from a source whose original use was cancer therapy. It is not unusual for stolen radioactive sources to become mixed with scrap metal and has been a problem in the US for 20 years. However the problem has been compounded in recent years as a result in a flow of radioactive materials being smuggled out of Russia and eastern Europe.

“Since 1983, US steel mills accidentally melted radioactive sources on 20 occasions and radioactive sources have accidentally been melted at other metal mills on 11 other occasions,” said Dicus. “While radiation exposures of mill workers and the public have, thus far, been low, the financial consequences have been large. US steel mills have incurred costs averaging $8-10 million as a result of these events and, in one case, the cost was $23 million.” Theft of radioactive sources is becoming an increasing problem, particularly in eastern Europe where a perception exists that the sources have a significant monetary value. Often when thieves realise the material has little value they discard them in scrap metal. In comparison, theft of materials for terrorist or other political purposes is, despite the considerable spot-light that has been focused on this issue, relatively rare. But the international community is increasingly concerned and the US Department of Energy has financed a security system now in place at the Sheremetyevo-1 airport in Moscow designed to stop people smuggling radioactive materials. Dicus warned that there was a danger of the frequency of such incidents increasing.

“The majority of the materials that have been offered for sale for malevolent purposes to date have in actuality not been weapons-usable nuclear material,” she said, “however, in some cases, they have been radioactive materials that, if handled improperly, could cause harm to the public health and safety...The uses of chemical, biological, or nuclear materials by terrorists as a weapon of mass destruction and to create fear are no longer crimes of the future. We are confronted with them today.”

Incident at Kiev airport

A German radiation health specialist was arrested at Kiev Airport on 16 October when customs officials found undeclared radioactive material in his bags. Guenter Pretzsch was returning from the International Cooperation for Chernobyl 1998 conference when, according to German officials, a Russian scientist asked him to take a metal container holding radioactive material back to Germany for analysis. The container’s dose rate, measured at Kiev Airport, was more than twice the level allowed for undeclared export, with the beta flux ten times above limits.

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