Radioactive material is still missing in Malaysia: Cause for concern?

Nuclear power plant at night Nuclear power plant at night. Image courtesy of Pixababy from Pexels, used under Creative Commons Zero license.

A radioactive source was reported missing on August 10 in Malaysia. Since then, Malaysian authorities have expressed growing concern about the possible use of this material in a terrorist attack. The reality is that this material could be used to build a radiological dispersal device (RDD), commonly known as a “dirty bomb,” and it can be found virtually in any country in the world.

Before getting into the details of the event it is worth mentioning that The New Straits Times (Malaysian news agency) apparently jumped to conclusions, reporting: “Authorities are frantically looking for a 23kg Radioactive Dispersal Device (RDD).” After this report, other news sources picked up the term RDD in their coverage, despite the lack of credible information on the whereabouts or potential uses of the radioactive material.

According to records from the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, there have been more than 16 cases involving the theft or loss of radioactive material since the 1990s, with the last incident reported in February 2017. Reports of the present incident in Malaysia indicate that the source “was being transported 30 miles from the town of Seremban to Shah Alam on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the capital.” The missing device is an industrial radiography unit with an iridium 192 isotope used for non-destructive testing. Without knowing the specific activity (i.e., the concentration of radioactivity) of the isotope, one cannot be sure of its precise potential harm, but commonly, this type of device is considered to be, in plain language, very dangerous.Nevertheless, to pose a threat, the radioactive isotope, contained in metal discs, must be taken out of its shielding container. This is not something that happens when it is operated appropriately. Moreover, because of the isotope’s relatively short half-life of 73 days, the risk decreases fairly rapidly over time. As of last year, there were approximately 8,000 radioactive sources used in non-destructive testing in Malaysia. Such devices are often employed in the oil and gas industry (a major one in Indonesia) to essentially x-ray pipelines and other structures for fissures.

The incident caused concerns at the highest levels of the government, and it was discussed in the National Security Council of Malaysia. Datuk Ayub Khan Mydin Pitchay, the Special Branch’s Counter-Terrorism Division assistant principal director, reported that after an investigation, the case was not linked to terrorism, and now is a criminal investigation. However, the possibility of malicious intent and insider threat cannot be ruled out, and the Malaysian government in late August set up a special force of the Atomic Energy Licensing Board and local police to continue investigating the incident.

Regional concerns in Southeast Asia. The missing radioactive device in Malaysia also raises concerns on the regional level, for a variety of reasons. First, Malaysia is in a strategic location for shipping routes as it shares a border with Singapore—one of the world’s busiest ports. With a high volume of cross-border transfer of goods into and out of Singapore, a perpetrator could smuggle a radioactive source to a country with porous borders. Fortunately, Singapore has a robust radiation portal monitor (RPM) infrastructure to prevent the smuggling of radioactive material. Complementing their RPMs, national authorities decided to ramp up security at their borders checkpoints as well.

While Malaysia has developed a strong export control regime for the sophisticated dual-use technologies being manufactured in the country, unfortunately, in the past, it has been a target and platform for nuclear smuggling. In the early 2000’s, the A.Q. Kahn network used Malaysia as a starting point to produce and export materials to Libya that later would be used in its clandestine nuclear weapons program. The missing radioactive device could raise questions over Malaysia’s nuclear legal framework that regulates the security of radioactive materials.

As part of its efforts to adhere to its nuclear security regime, Malaysia has programs in place to detect radiation sources at scrap yards and conduct a follow-up forensic investigation. Furthermore, with the objective of having broader regulatory control over radioactive sources, the licensing board, in cooperation with the Malaysia Remote Sensing Agency, launched a mobile application that allows the appropriate authorities to locate radioactive material throughout Malaysia. The system was reportedly launched in September 2017.

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Global problem. One of the common motivations behind the theft of radiation sources is the hope of profits; missing or stolen radioactive sources can become a safety concern if they end up in scrap metal yards or are intentionally sold as scrap metal. Such an incident occurred in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in 1983, when a scrap yard obtained a used teletherapy source with cobalt 60 pellets. The pellets were then converted with another scrap metal into steel products and sold in both Mexico and the United States. Similarly, in 2010, a research institution in India improperly disposed of a gamma unit containing cobalt 60 when it was sold to scrap dealers who dismantled the equipment. As a consequence, one of the scrap workers died, and six suffered radiation injuries.

Judging by information from news outlets and statements from Malaysian officials, it seems that nobody has come forward with information that may lead to the possible location of the iridium 192 radiation source. The source was lost in transit, most likely falling out of the truck. One possibility is that it was collected from the roadside and then sold as scrap metal. This assumption is based on events that happened in the past and discussed later in this article.

The police detained the operators of the truck carrying the radiation source, to assist with the investigation and to conduct an initial background check for possible links to terrorist organizations. Later that week, the operators were released because of lack of evidence, and no terrorist links were established.

It is worth noting that the first report came 10 days after the source went missing. It seems that Malaysian authorities did not intend to disclose the event at first. As time went by, informing the public became relevant from a radiation safety stand point and perhaps as a crowdsourcing mechanism to locate the device. If the source is eventually found, it would be interesting to see whether the government is open to sharing the information with the community. In contrast,many countries—including Mexico in a recent incident—make an effort to immediately share the event with the public throughout social media, radio, press-releases, and emergency bulletins providing, facts and steps to follow in case the source is found. Making the public aware of such incidents may increase the likelihood of finding missing items and having them turned in safely to authorities.

It is important to mention that no international instrument binds countries to report the loss of control of radioactive sources and material to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or neighboring countries. Experts have rightly argued in favor of creating a mechanism that would require mandatory reporting of loss of control of the most dangerous (IAEA Categories 1 and 2) radioactive sources, because the upside for worldwide nuclear security outweighs the burden of reporting.

The mishandling of radioactive sources is hardly isolated to Malaysia: It happens in rich and poor countries alike. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) publishes a yearly report on the number of radioactive sources that are lost, stolen, and recovered in that country. In 2016, a source with the same isotope and categorization as the missing Malaysian device was also lost during transportation. In this case, the licensee was able to find the source one day after it was initially reported stolen. The Canadian National Sealed Source Registry and Sealed Source Tracking System describes a total of 15 events (12 stolen and 3 recoveries) in 2016. Similarly, the Mexican nuclear regulatory authority, the National Commission on Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS), has reported the theft of 2 radioactive devices in the current year. Both were recovered, and are now under regulatory control.

It is evident that countries around the world regularly lose regulatory control over radioactive material. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) which is updated with information provided on a voluntary basis by the IAEA Member States, indicates that in 2016 there were 186 incidents in 34 States that involved unauthorized access of nuclear and other radioactive material.

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Improving nuclear security worldwide. In 2002, Mohamed ElBaradei, at that time director general of the IAEA, emphasized the importance of developing cradle-to-grave control of radioactive sources to prevent them from being misused. Since then, greater attention has been devoted—at both national and international levels—to prevention and detection of and responses to the theft or loss of nuclear or other radioactive material; these efforts included the promulgation of a revised Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources in 2003. Still, not enough has been done.

In many cases, alternative sources—with lower activity or even no radioactivity at all—could be substituted for the radioactive sources currently in use. Were this done, tasks like industrial radiography could be carried out without the dangers of misuse or accidents. At the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, two dozen countries, led by France, pledged to replace high-risk radioactive sources with non-isotopic technology, whenever technologically and economically feasible. Malaysia, which attended the summit, did not make this commitment, even though studies indicate that nearly all industrial radiography could be performed by non-isotopic technologies such as ultrasound or x-ray.

In many countries, the actual theft of radioactive sources during transportation is inadvertent; the perpetrators’ target is the vehicle itself. The main security challenge of mobile industrial radiographies is the requirement that they be transported to the field and back to a storage facility. The repetitive movement of this type of device makes it vulnerable to theft and loss. The Regional Security of Radioactive Sources (RSRS) Project was created by the Australian government and has been implemented in Southeast Asia since 2005. The project aims to counter terrorism by reducing vulnerabilities in the unauthorized acquisition and malicious use of high activity radioactive material. In 2010, as part of RSRS, a regional workshop was held on the security of industrial radiography. The discussions, which included the perspective of regulators and operators, facilitated the drafting of recommendations and guidelines on security measures for industrial radiography devices.

In 2017, Ukraine launched an Amnesty of Ionizing Radiation Sources Program to reduce the number of orphaned radioactive sources and prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. The program educates the public about exemption from criminal liability for “voluntary return of radioactive sources by citizens.” This became possible because of amendments introduced a year earlier to the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Malaysia and other countries trying to cope with theft and loss of radioactive sources could borrow from such best practices and make cooperation between the public and authorities more likely to occur.

Advanced new media tools and techniques provide another approach to help locate radioactive sources that are outside of regulatory control. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies pioneered a new method to use new media tools such as social media searches and social network analysis to complement under-resourced governments in their efforts to identify and locate orphaned radioactive sources. This included building and analyzing a database of current and former employees at operational and defunct facilities, identified through a network analysis. A pilot project in Moldova had demonstrated the validity and efficiency of such an approach, and helped authorities identify several radioactive sources not accounted for. Other similar techniques can be used to identify risky truck movements and routes, and may be applied to a scenario similar to the case of Malaysia.

Government, research institutions, and civil society can play an important part in raising political awareness of the safety and security threats that radioactive sources pose. The first report coming out of a major Malaysian news outlet incorrectly labeled a sealed radioactive source as a RDD. It is understandable for the population to overreact when they become aware that a device they are unfamiliar with is radioactive and missing, and is inaccurately characterized as a dirty bomb to boot.

Fortunately, nobody has yet used explosives to spread radioactive materials, but the possibility that this may happen is real. That possibility can be greatly reduced through government and civil society action.

To combat this media illiteracy, governments should be as proactive, transparent, and communicative as possible during these types of incidents, and nongovernmental entities can help in public outreach efforts and other partnerships. In addition, national governments should keep investing in human resources with the necessary competencies and advanced knowledge in nuclear security and nuclear security culture. And those governments should seek to substitute non-isotopic alternatives for high-risk radiological sources wherever technologically and economically feasible.


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