A total of 4243 incidents of illegal or unauthorised activities involving nuclear and other radioactive material have been reported in the IAEA Incident & Trafficking Database (ITDB) since 1993, according to a new factsheet released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2023, 168 incidents were reported by 31 countries, in line with historical averages.

The ITDB receives information on incidents ranging from illegal possession, attempted sale and smuggling of nuclear and other radioactive material to unauthorised disposal of material and discovery of lost radioactive sources. Six of the incidents reported in 2023 were probably related to trafficking or malicious use. There was insufficient information to determine the intent of ten incidents. The 152 incidents that were not connected to trafficking or malicious use primarily resulted from unauthorised disposal, unauthorised shipment or the discovery of radioactive material.

“The reoccurrence of incidents confirms the need for vigilance and continuous improvement of the regulatory oversight to control, secure and properly dispose radioactive material,” said Elena Buglova, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Security. “The ITDB is a valuable resource that allows for the identification of potential threats and trends to support international cooperation and to improve the implementation of nuclear security.”

An analysis of the types of material involved in reported incidents indicates a decline in incidents involving nuclear material, such as uranium, plutonium and thorium. Since 1993, 14% of all incidents involved nuclear material, 59% involved other radioactive material and some 27% involved radioactively contaminated and other material. Some 52% of all thefts reported since 1993 occurred during authorised transport, and in the last decade, transport-related thefts accounted for almost 65% of all thefts.

“Nuclear and other radioactive material remain vulnerable to security threats during transport. Figures from the ITDB highlight the ongoing importance of strengthening transport security measures,” Buglova said. “The IAEA assists States with strengthening their national nuclear security regimes to guard nuclear and other radioactive material with physical protection and computer security measures to ensure it does not fall into the wrong hands.”

With 145 participating States, the ITDB fosters global information exchange about incidents that involve nuclear and other radioactive material falling out of regulatory control because they were lost, stolen, improperly disposed of, or otherwise neglected. The ITDB’s data is voluntarily reported, and only participating States and relevant international organisations, such as the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL), can access it. Somalia and Togo were the most recent countries to join the ITDB in 2023.

The ITDB covers incidents involving nuclear material, radioisotopes and radioactively contaminated material such as scrap metal. By reporting lost or stolen material to the ITDB, countries increase the chances of its recovery and reduce the opportunities for it to be used in criminal activities. Scams or hoaxes involving nuclear or otherwise radioactive material can also be reported.