Safeguarding nuclear material is an international concern. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) applies safeguards to uranium ore concentrate (UOC or “yellowcake”). However, the legal requirements in place are limited. Despite these limited international controls, it is incumbent upon states to install a system of nuclear accountancy and control which ensures and verifies the peaceful use of nuclear material.
For example, diversion or theft of a single cargo container of UOC can present major problems. One shipping container holds around 20-35 drums of yellowcake, or approximately 12 tonnes, roughly the same amount of U3O8 needed to manufacture a nuclear explosive device. On the other hand, it takes approximately 200 tonnes of U3O8 to keep a large (1000 MWe) nuclear power reactor generating electricity for one year. With smaller volumes needed to make a nuclear explosive than to fuel a nuclear power plant, materials need to be tracked, accounted for, and reported.
International law prohibits states that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from providing nuclear material to a non-nuclear weapon country except under the safeguards system of the IAEA. However, this system provides only limited international and regional requirements and guidance applicable to UOC governance.
IAEA safeguards currently require states to report the export or import of uranium or thorium-containing materials to non-nuclear weapon countries, but only if they’re being used in the nuclear supply chain (i.e. nuclear reactor). This import/export reporting is uneven across states, particularly since some do not consider uranium-bearing ores or their concentrated byproducts as potentially destined (or potentially diverted) for nuclear purposes.
There is a Convention that has some requirements for the physical protection of nuclear material and nuclear facilities, as well as measures for protection during transportation. IAEA safeguards are not applied to material in mining or ore processing activities.
Potential Risks
There are two main risks associated with uranium mining, milling, and trade: sabotage and unauthorized removal of UOC.
Sabotage is defined by the IAEA as “any deliberate act directed against a nuclear facility or nuclear material in use, storage, or transport which could directly or indirectly endanger the health and safety of personnel, the public or the environment by exposure to radiation or release of radioactive substances.”
Sabotage cases in uranium mining have aimed to disturb the operations of a foreign-owned company; for example, in Niger in May 2013. A variety of best practices are visible within industry and state regulation in countries where the risk of sabotage is considered high to medium. For example, in Kazakhstan, transport and security plans must be submitted to Atomnaya Promyshlennost Kazahkstana (KAZATOMPROM) two weeks in advance of transport. Other countries require UOC to travel in secure convoys, either with the military or with trained federal, regional or local police. In some countries where the risk of sabotage is considered low, such as Australia, transport and contingency plans still require informing police along the transport route in advance and prohibiting drivers to deviate from the route (or contingency plan).
Unauthorized Removal
Unauthorized removal can occur in several ways: 1) Mine or mill break-in and removal of UOC by outsiders; 2) Removal of UOC by outsiders with insider help; 3) Removal of UOC entirely by insiders, whether by a few individuals or by collusion among several staff and even management; or 4) Illegal mining.
The biggest barrier to stealing ore, as distinct from UOC, is to do so without detection because the quantities are so large. Since dump trucks transporting ore typically have a 20-30 tonne capacity (dependent upon the addition of a trailer), it could require anywhere from 10 to 100 trucks’ worth of material to make such an endeavor worthwhile. Even assuming high-grade uranium at the site, it is unlikely that there would be enough trucks available to steal or that such an operation would go unnoticed. This, however, has not stopped some attempts to steal smaller amounts of ore, as witnessed in Brazil in 2004 when police seized 1,320 pounds of ore in a pick-up truck close to the Caeitite mine or in Namibia when 324kg (approx. 714lbs) of uranium ore was stolen from the not-yet operational Trekkopje Mine in August 2011.
There have been cases of unauthorized UOC removal including a 2009 case in which an attempt at theft occurred, where two Rossing mine employees sought to sell 170kg (approx. 374 lbs) of UOC to an undercover police agent.


The IAEA tracks incidents involving uranium. Between 1995 and 2007, more than 2,000 incidents were reported to its Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB). The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency has reported the number of incidents is lower than in the early 1990s. However, there is a need to evaluate the ability of industry and regulators to effectively track the loss, theft, or diversion of purified natural uranium.
Currently, there is no global “pit to conversion” tracking system, and producer countries have different criteria for reporting losses. For example, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires that 15lbs/U lost in a month, or 150lbs/U over a year be reported while Canada requires that all losses be reported. Australia expects “every gram to be accounted for.” For all, it is incumbent upon industry to self-report and none of the three countries have ever received such a report, despite knowledge that industry loses amounts on a regular basis. National regulation therefore needs to define realistic amounts for reporting, and industry-government dialogue is needed to understand why industry does not report (e.g. too much paperwork for small amounts unaccounted). This reporting would further help the IAEA’s ITDB and provide a more realistic global understanding of the risk of theft and diversion.
All information for this project comes from the individual country reports and research conducted by the Governing Uranium program at the Danish Institute for International Studies. Learn more at the DIIS website at