Risks to International Security by Global Radiological and Nuclear Material Trafficking
by Rijul Singh Uppal on 19 May 2020 0 Comment

The concept of International Security emerged as a measure to ensure the mutual survival of states and their safety. The notion gained traction after the Second World War and the formation of the United Nations. While traditionally the concept of security was focused on individual states and their militaries, the decades post the Second World War saw the focus shift to safety and security of the globalized community. As the world came together to face safety and security challenges, these challenges extended beyond the conventional inter-State military challenges and now involved non-state armed actors such as organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups. Environmental and cultural crimes also became part of the global discourse on safety and security.


Post the collapse of the Soviet Union and after the 9/11 attack on the United States, the threat of Radiological and Nuclear (RN) attacks emerged as one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement agencies across the world. These concerns have grown over time. This has also led law enforcement agencies in conjunction with global agencies to increase their nuclear security capabilities as well as trafficking detection capacity.


Various definitions of RN material trafficking describe it as the unauthorized removal of RN materials as well as theft, unauthorized sale and transfer / transport of the same. The definitions could be broken down to simply state that any RN material outside the realm of regulation is illicit and trafficked RN material.


Illicit trades in RN materials involve multi-actors; suppliers, middlemen, and buyers. As suppliers of RN materials would have to be person(s) with direct access to such materials, it is fair to presume that most if not all actors on the supply side of illicit RN materials for trafficking would be insiders (that is, person/s with direct and legal access to RN materials). These actors could be motivated for profit or through extortion and blackmail. The buyers of illicit RN materials could be both rogue states as well as terrorist groups. The middlemen may include multiple links on the chain which would include highly organized transnational criminal groups with access to underground trade networks. These could likely include a network of shell corporations with profit being the sole motive.


The 2005 UN Nuclear Terrorism Convention defines nuclear terrorism as any offence committed by a person with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; the intent to cause substantial damage to property or to the environment as well as the intent to compel a natural or legal person, an international organization or a State to do or refrain from doing an act.


While no credible information exists of any terror group having succeeded in getting access to RN materials capable of being used as weapons, the prospect of terrorist organizations getting their hands on RN materials has been a matter of concern for both international and domestic law enforcement agencies. The presence of RN materials on the global black market has been a matter of global concern. The fear that a terror group could commit an act of RN terrorism has kept agencies on their toes. Indeed, terrorist groups have attempted to buy RN material and hence the perennial risk of RN terrorism.


A terror group is reported (Link) to have attempted to procure RN weapons through the black market as far back as the 1990s. A more recently formed terror group has also been reported (Link) to harbor similar ambitions and has captured nuclear materials from a University in the Middle East; the IAEA stated that these materials do not pose a significant proliferation threat. However, this does not necessarily mean that such radical outfits do not have other RN materials, as there may be lacunae in the global reporting of theft or loss of RN materials.


Law enforcement agencies operating in a former Soviet Republic are reported (Link) to have thwarted multiple attempts during 2010-2015 of selling RN materials to terror groups operating in the Middle East. Investigations into the 2016 Brussels bombings (Link) also revealed that the terrorists involved in the attack had been secretly spying on a senior nuclear scientist.


In order to counter these dangers, there is need for understanding the process which leads to RN materials going out of the realm of regulations. This would help identify the gaps that exist in the existing security framework(s).


The IAEA documents the phenomena of theft and loss of RN material in its Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) that was established in 1995. The purpose of the ITDB is to collect trafficking incidents that are reported or confirmed by member states. The database contains several incidents that involve illicit use of RN materials, including containing RN contaminated scrap materials, that could pose environmental hazards (Link). This helps enforcement agencies to make policy decisions to effectively plan and counter RN trafficking as it helps States to share information. The IAEA further prepares a Nuclear Security Plan (2018-2021 being the latest) and also provides learning modules on nuclear security for professionals in the field.


On a global scale, emphasis is required to better the minimum standards for RN detection and to counter RN trafficking; individually, member states must focus on improving their capabilities to plan and perform intelligence operations to stop RN trafficking. This must also include capacity building and training of the relevant enforcement agencies. States must develop the recommended national strategies for detection and recovery of RN materials with the establishment of a capable radiation detection framework. States must also aim to close gaps in the information sharing systems between their relevant agencies and international agencies as well as focus on the establishment of regional RN security frameworks for the effective planning of security operations needed to thwart RN trafficking.


The author is an Advocate and LLM (Transnational Crime and Justice) from UNICRI-UPEACE 

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