Radioactive materials lost in at least 167 incidents in 2019

Research findings raise concerns over security awareness as staff malpractice contributed to 55 per cent of publicly reported incidents.

Dispatch area at a radiopharmaceutical manufacturer where radioactive materials are unloaded, sorted and labelled ready for onward shipment to customers. Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA Imagebank.

Few would say that they feel experienced in handling radioactive items, yet most people encounter them in their day-to-day lives. Exit signs, smoke detectors, even the watch you keep on your wrist relies on small quantities of radioactive material to work properly. And even though radiation has been around for over a century, most people are unaware of its many uses. Even more so, many think of impendent doom whenever it is brought up in conversation.

“People are afraid of radiation, for a good reason as it is a scary thing. It is kind of like this invisible killer but it is also poorly understood and makes people terrified,” says Sam Meyer, lead researcher at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies.

While the individual smoke detector poses no significant health risk, radioactive materials should be kept regulated and disposed of safely to avoid leakage or misuse. Problem is, they’re not.

Instead, over 150 incidents of lost radioactive and nuclear material are publicly reported each year and according to findings from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), many happen due to poor security awareness.

In 2019 alone, delivery failures, improper disposals and loss due to malpractice made up 55 per cent of publicly reported incidents of lost radioactive material, a pattern consistent over several years.

Surprisingly, most recorded incidents do not occur in nuclear power plants but in the industrial and medical sector.

Sam Meyer, the lead researcher of the CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, thinks that personnel in sectors not associated with nuclear materials tend to think of radioactive equipment as just another piece of machinery. In turn, this might make them less aware of the security implications and result in more careless behaviour.

“These are things that are taken from the warehouse and driven over bumpy dirt roads, 100 kilometres out to the wilderness to see if the tree is good for logging or the soil is good for drilling, and you know, things happen”, Sam Meyer remarks. “It could be as simple as you forget to close the hatch of the pick-up truck or forget to tie something down.”

While human error is inevitable, staff malpractice in handling radioactive materials can have serious consequences. On November 4th in 2019, typhoon floods swept away 90 bags of radioactive waste from storage sites in Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, out of which many leaked and 36 were irretrievable. An official of the Tamura Municipal Government later stated that the bags had not been properly secured before the flood, resulting in the accident. In a similar stroke of misconduct in 2018, Idaho State University misplaced a gram of weapons-grade nuclear material.

Since most incidents are not reported, the vast majority of orphaned radioactive material is unknown. As large quantities of radioactive materials can be weaponized, this has raised concerns among nuclear security organisations over its accessibility to terrorists.

There has not yet been a large-scale attack using homemade radiation dispersal devices, but its disruptive possibilities have attracted interest among extremist groups. According to Sam Meyer, attacks have been plotted by US right-wing extremist groups as well as Norweigan terrorist Anders Breivik, and 2019 saw the development of criminal usage of radioactive material in non-terrorism related activities with 61 incidents involving theft and unauthorized possession.

In one incident of unauthorised possession in Oklahoma, US, police pulled over a car with expired tags only to discover a canister of powdered yellow uranium in the trunk, along with one opened bottle of Kentucky Delux whiskey — and a rattlesnake.

Other cases provide glimpses of the black market for radioactive materials. In June 2018, six people believed to be part of an international smuggling ring were arrested in Ukraine after attempting to sell radioactive materials to an undercover police officer.

“What I have never come up with a satisfying answer for is ‘given that this universe of material exists, why hasn’t there been kind of radiological terrorism?”, Sam Meyer says. “We know that the supply exists and to an extent that the demand exists.”

The high frequency of incidents in non-nuclear sectors has led the CNS to recommend improvements in security culture as well as routine reporting of incidents to increase accountability and public awareness.