The United Nations atomic watchdog agency has reported a substantial increase in illicit trafficking and unauthorised activities with nuclear and other radioactive materials in 2003-2004, including one case involving weapons-grade material.
The majority of the incidents reported by states showed no evidence of criminal activity, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said. But, it warned: "In the hands of terrorists or other criminals, some radioactive sources could be used for malicious purposes, for example in a radiological dispersal device or 'dirty bomb'."
Countries reported 121 incidents to the IAEA in 2004, according to new statistics from the agency's Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB). The case involving fissile material - highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium - needed to make a nuclear weapon, occurred in June 2003 when an individual was arrested in possession of 170 grams of HEU, attempting to illegally transport it across the border from Georgia.
The increased number of incidents during 2003-2004 could in part be due to improved reporting, IDTB said.
Since IDTB started in 1993, there have been 18 confirmed case of trafficking in HEU and plutonium. A few of these involved kilogram quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material but most involved very small quantities. In some cases the material was allegedly a sample of larger quantities available for illegal sale or at risk of theft.
In the past 12 years, 220 incidents involved nuclear materials, mainly low-grade and mostly reactor fuel pellets, natural uranium, depleted uranium and thorium. While the quantities were rather small to be significant for nuclear proliferation or use in a terrorist bomb, they indicate gaps in control and security of nuclear material and facilities.
The majority of confirmed nuclear incidents during 1993-2004 involved criminal activity, such as theft, illegal possession, illegal transfer or transaction. Where data on motives is available, it indicates profit seeking as the principal goal.
In the 12 year period, 424 incidents were reported involving other radioactive materials, mostly radioactive sources, which are used worldwide in a host of legitimate applications, such as radiography. Measures to protect and control their use, storage or disposal are much less strict than those applied toward nuclear materials.
As well as possible terrorist use, radioactive sources also have the potential to harm human health or the environment, AKI reports.