Revamping the Radiological Security Regime

By: Brittany R. Marien, Guest Contributor

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Although more than 100 countries possess radiological sources for use in industry, medicine, agriculture, and research, many of these sources are poorly secured or located in areas, such as hospitals or research centers with open access to large numbers of people. The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit revealed that in 2013 and 2014 there were 325 reported incidents where nuclear or radioactive material was stolen, lost, or outside of regulatory control—according to the report, 85% of the unaccounted materials were non-nuclear radioactive materials.[i]

The Nuclear Security Summits were world summits aimed at preventing nuclear and radiological terrorism during the Obama administration. It is unclear whether the Trump administration plans to continue these summits. To secure radiological materials and reduce the risks of radiological terrorism, international structures must be sustained and renewed to enhance the legal instruments of the radiological security regime. The United States must continue the Nuclear Security Summits and lead multilateral discussions that establish legal instruments for strengthening the Code of Conduct and providing universal coverage to states at risk.

The Threat of a Weak Radiological Security Regime

The widespread availability and vulnerable nature of radiological materials raises the risk of theft by terrorist organizations seeking materials needed for radiological weapons. The same isotopes used for many civilian purposes can also be used for nefarious purposes, such as building a “dirty bomb”.[ii] Although the term “dirty bomb” is often mischaracterized as a small nuclear device, a dirty bomb is a radiological dispersal device (RDD) that combines conventional explosives with radioactive material and, when detonated, scatters radioactive material to the surrounding area.[iii] The malicious dispersion of radiological materials can have a devastating effect on society’s economy and induce public panic. For example, Cesium-137, which is a radioactive source that could be used in a dirty bomb, has chemical properties that allow it to bind to concrete. In the event of a dirty bomb detonation, current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards call for the destruction and removal of radiological contaminated buildings. Moreover, the spread of radioactive sources has the potential for long-term health risks including cancer.

Legal instruments exist to mitigate nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon threats[iv], However, dedicated instruments and regimes do not exist to address radiological material security. 130 of 168 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) member states have signed the Code of Conduct, which contains basic principles regarding the security of radioactive sources and suggests appropriate measures that states can voluntarily undertake to ensure that such sources within their borders are safely managed and secured. While the Code of Conduct is conceptually sound, it ultimately fails in practice because it does not require states to secure its radioactive sources by a specific date and lacks an accountability mechanism to ensure that signatories meet all recommended standards.

Strengthening the Code of Conduct

Strengthening the Code of Conduct would include developing binding standards to ensure that controls and safety mechanisms exist to secure radiological materials. Without binding and universal standards, states risk the weak and uneven application of international guidance and gaps in the management of radiological sources. Revolutionizing the Code of Conduct from an instrument of a guiding principle to an effective legal framework includes establishing harmonized, homogenous, and binding standards to diminish radiological security threats. Thus, the United States and partners should propose binding standards that focus on: (1) the security and control of radiological materials; and (2) the removal and disposal of unneeded radiological sources.

Refining the Code of Conduct to include binding and universal standards would require building a regulatory framework that provides accountability that these standards are properly implemented. Currently, the US Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) and the IAEA aim to improve radiological security, however, neither have the funding or capacity to serve as a verification and regulatory body. For example, GTRI’s budget for radiological removal has been cut significantly and will not be re-funded to full capacity until 2028.[v] The United States should explore options to appropriately fund an independent regulatory verification. International law is only effective when words are transformed into action through implementation of agreed upon standards and mechanisms. A verification and regulatory body can ensure states that the principles of law are carried out in good faith.

Providing Universal Coverage

Offering universal coverage should require a multilateral effort to provide the financial, technical, and political resources needed to assist states implement the controls necessary for radiological security. Currently, only 130 of 168 IAEA member states have pledged their commitment to the Code of Conduct; to prevent radiological theft or terrorism, it is critical that all IAEA member states secure their radiological sources and commit to signing a binding Code of Conduct.

Achieving universal coverage under the Code of Conduct is contingent on the willingness of IAEA member states—multilateralism can only work with states willing to come to the table. How might the United States bring to the table member states that are unwilling to commit to a revitalized Code of Conduct? The United States could use the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear and Radiological Security Index to “name and shame” unwilling states to engage in international dialogue.[vi] Publicly calling out those at risk for radiological theft could persuade unwilling IAEA member states to pledge allegiance to the Code of Conduct for the sake of their own security—and to save political face.

The formalized and legal framework for the Code of Conduct should include an annual dues policy for members. By instilling a dues policy, the proper safety mechanisms can be funded and put in place in states that cannot afford to implement these measures on their own. While there are drawbacks to enforcing a dues policy and affluent states may be reluctant to pay the costs of other states, states that cannot afford to protect their radiological sources are most likely to be the states most at risk for radiological theft. If all states have not secured their radiological sources, then the theft and proliferation of radiological material to non-state actors will persist—putting all states at risk. The United States and its allies should stress the importance of universal coverage and the risk that unsecured materials pose, states should view the benefit of worldwide security of radiological sources less than the cost of annual dues.

The United States needs to continue the Nuclear Security Summits and encourage international effort on enhancing radiological security to effectively secure dangerous radiological materials from actors with malicious intent. The United States has both the economic and political influence to bring productive change to the radiological security regime. The conventions that exist to contain nuclear, chemical, and biological threats were created after events or attacks that involved the use of these weapons. Must we wait for a radiological attack to finally bring radiological security to the forefront of the agenda? Or will we continue to dismiss non-state actors’ capability or intent to acquire these vulnerable materials. Time will only tell, but the clock is ticking.

[i] It is estimated that the number of incidents reported fell well below the actual number of events where radioactive materials were outside of regulatory control because of institutions and state reluctance to admit loss of control.

[ii] “Radiological,” National Threat Initiative Accessed March 23, 2017

[iii] Jonathan Medalia, “Terrorist “Dirty Bombs”: A Brief Primer,” Congressional Research Service (2004):1.

[iv] For example, the Biological Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Convention, Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism exist and provide the legal framework to mitigate nuclear, biological, and chemical threats.

[v] Matthew Bunn and Tom Bielefeld, “Reducing Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism Threats,” Institute for Nuclear Materials Management, July 2007.

[vi] The Nuclear and Radiological Security Index ranks states according to their level of nuclear and radiological security mechanisms.. For context, Australia was ranked #1 and the United States currently is ranked #10. “Preventing Catastrophe: Nuclear Terrorism Threats and Responses,” Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group Panel, Joan Rohlfing and Dr. Bruce Hoffman, March 17, 2017.

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