Report calls for global sharing of data on radioactive materials

06 March 2008

The UK's Royal Society has published a report which highlights the need for the world to share technical data on nuclear and other radioactive materials in order to deter smuggling of such material and nuclear terrorism.

The report - entitled Detecting Nuclear and Radiological Materials - considers issues surrounding the detection of nuclear threats such as the smuggling of nuclear warheads and radioactive materials to make dirty bombs. It concludes that shared international databases would aid the growing field of nuclear forensics by speeding up and improving the identification of the origins of nuclear materials. The report suggests this may deter future terrorism attempts.

The Royal Society held a two day workshop in December 2007 to explore innovative approaches for detecting the illicit trafficking of radioactive materials. It began by setting out the potential threats of concern and reviewed current detection capabilities that address them. It then explored novel approaches to improving these capabilities, and considered ways to develop any promising ideas. The report summarizes the key issues raised during the workshop.

Professor Roger Cashmore, chairman of the advisory group that produced the report, said: "To reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism we need to increase our ability to detect and respond to the misuse of nuclear materials. This can help the international collection and sharing of information about nuclear materials." He continued, "For example, nuclear reactors may use a specific type of fuel, such as uranium pellets. This fuel is then processed to produce nuclear waste products with particular characteristics. Indicators such as these make nuclear materials inherently traceable."

The report - which represents the views of over 70 of the world's leading scientific and policy experts from the UK, USA, Russia, Israel and Europe - highlights the need for countries that have a nuclear power industry or nuclear weapons to share technical data. For instance, information on the types of nuclear fuel used by their commercial reactors, or nuclear material used for defence.

The Royal Society said that databases of this type of information are crucial to trace the source of the material after smuggling or, in a worst case scenario, a nuclear incident.

"If a bomb made from a certain type of uranium or plutonium was detonated, knowing where that material was processed would enable authorities to trace it back to a specific country's industrial or defence facility. Currently this process could take months but if international information was shared, it could take weeks or even days. Such efficiency would act as a strong deterrent to potential smugglers," Cashmore said. He added, "Information on the type of nuclear materials held by countries is valuable only if it is globally available. At present there is no requirement for countries to collect or share information on their nuclear industry or weaponry."

The report notes that in many countries there is considerable sensitivity in the commercial and military communities over sharing information on the types and quantities of nuclear material.

Cashmore said, "It is of course critical to ensure homeland security is protected. But nuclear and other radioactive materials of concern are spread throughout the world - along with people willing to smuggle them. It is crucial to take account of the potential global threat of trafficking when considering whether it is appropriate to share such sensitive information."  He added, "Consistent international materials databases, used alongside existing surveillance and intelligence, will undoubtedly improve the prevention of nuclear threats and will build international confidence in nuclear security."


The full report can be downloaded from the Royal Society's website.