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.
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.”
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 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.
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 http://www.diis.dk/en/projects/governing-uranium
INTERNATIONAL SAFEGUARDS AND SECURITY IN DEPTH
The Starting Point of Safeguards
Natural uranium is considered to be source material under the IAEA Statute and thus a type of nuclear material as defined in IAEA document INFCIRC/153, which defines the starting point for full safeguards (i.e. the application of the full set of accountancy and control provisions on nuclear material inventory). Paragraph 34(c) is commonly referred to in the safeguards community as ‘the starting point of safeguards.’ It states:
When any nuclear material of a composition and purity suitable for fuel fabrication or for being isotopically enriched leaves the plant or the process stage in which it has been produced, or when such nuclear material, or any other nuclear material produced at a later stage in the nuclear fuel cycle, is imported into the State, the nuclear material shall become subject to the other safeguards procedures specified in the Agreement.
Safeguards1 therefore start when nuclear material ‘leaves the plant or process stage’, and has historically been interpreted as the output of conversion plants (i.e. Uranium Hexafluoride or UF6). INFCIRC/153 does not apply to material in mining or ore processing/milling activities.
The Starting Point of Safeguards
In 2003 the IAEA reinterpreted the starting point with the introduction of ‘Policy Paper 18’ under which safeguards were applied to the production of purified uranyl nitrate or the first practical point earlier. This captured material in process at conversion plants and therefore UOC remains a ‘pre-34c’ material and not subject to the full scope of IAEA accountancy and control provisions. UOC, however, is used to feed subsequent stages of the nuclear supply chain and therefore the IAEA still requires information on exports and imports.
Given that natural uranium can be used to feed subsequent stages of the fuel cycle, INFCIRC/153 (Paragraphs 34a and 34b) requires states to report the import and export of any material containing uranium or thorium, even trace quantities, if such material is exported for nuclear purposes (i.e. to be used in a nuclear reactor) to a non-nuclear weapon state. Although the rule does not apply to nuclear weapons states, they do voluntarily provide this information to the IAEA.
Reporting on Uranium Deposits
The 1997 Additional Protocol requires annual reporting on a states’ uranium and thorium holdings (location, number of operational mines, purity, and production capacity for the year prior and potential for the year ahead). Most uranium suppliers have concluded a Protocol Additional to their existing safeguards agreements. As of 5 November 2014, 124 states (including Euratom) had the Additional Protocol in force. The IAEA maintains an updated status report, which can be found here: http://www.iaea.org/safeguards/protocol.html
Although IAEA safeguards do not explicitly call for export controls to be developed within a state, the reporting of imports and exports requires states to apply prudent controls and evaluate the risk that uranium will be extracted and/or traded for nuclear purposes. If the risk is great enough, the IAEA requires that states apply appropriate controls. The challenge for states however is that ‘prudent’ or ‘appropriate’ controls are not prescribed by the IAEA and therefore interpretation is left to states. That said, export controls are required by the UN Security Council Resolution 1540 of 2004.
Physical protection of nuclear material The key convention covering physical protection, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) also states “prudent management practice” is required to secure nuclear material, but it doesn’t elaborate any further on exactly what such a practice entails. The IAEA has drafted a “tech doc” on “Uranium Security for the Uranium Industry” which takes a graded approach to security practices. It should be published in 2015 or 2016.
CPPNM AmendmentThe CPPNM was amended in 2005 to extend its provisions to domestic use, storage and transport. It also provided for expanded cooperation between and among states regarding rapid measures to locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material, mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage and prevent and combat related offences. The amendment will enter into force when two-thirds of States Parties have ratified it.
As of December 1, 2014, 55% (83 out of 150 states parties) have ratified the amendment. Major uranium producers such as Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan have ratified the amendment, and apply the CPPNM’s provisions domestically. The same goes for China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom. Others, such as Brazil, Iran, Malawi, Tanzania and the United States have yet to ratify.
Safeguards are activities by which the IAEA can verify that a state is living up to its international commitments not to use nuclear programmes for nuclear weapons purposes.
THE ATTEMPTED THEFT AT ROSSING
In September 2009, two employees of the Rossing Uranium Mine in Namibia and a member of the Namibian Defense Forces were arrested trying to sell 170kg (approx. 374lbs) of natural uranium concentrate to an undercover police agent. A Rossing employee and a contractor working in Rossingâ€™s Final Product Recovery (FPR) area orchestrated the theft. Namibian police initiated the illicit purchase and targeted Rossing employees, offering large amounts of money (reportedly several thousands of dollars per kilogram) with the goal of determining whether yellowcake could be smuggled out of the mine. The two employees exploited their knowledge of vulnerability gaps within the FPR and elsewhere at the mine to carry out the theft. External access to the FPR was thought to be controlled with generally adequate physical security, but employees with access were largely unmonitored and had free reign of all areas of the FPR. The employees removed yellowcake from a damaged finished product drum as controls on damaged drums was not as strictly regulated as on regular drums. The damaged drum was then moved to an enclosed area with in the FPR where there was no closed circuit TV (CCTV) supervision.
Once in the unmonitored area, the UOC was scooped into individual plastic bags and transferred to a trash dumpster for removal. The employees then circumvented a number of controls on waste removal from the FPR. A hauling truck took the dumpster to Rossingâ€™s dump site. Neither of the employees was authorized to drive the truck, and the truck should never have entered or exited the FPR without a security escort. The truck was also driven outside of its normal schedule. Once the bags of yellowcake were put into Rossingâ€™s dump site, the material was largely unprotected as the dump is normally only used for disposing of non-radioactive waste. Namibian police stated that another 250kg (approx. 551lbs), which the company could not account for, may also have been stolen. According to Wikileaks, other employees who worked on the same FPR shift were not directly implicated, but there were concerns as others on shift would have had to witness some of the activities. Since the employees were caught three weeks after the material was removed, the CCTV recordings from the day of the theft had already been overwritten. In the aftermath, Rossing management conducted a security audit, revealing 54 security findings which Rossing addressed with a security improvement action plan. All upgrades were in place by mid-2010.
TRACKING INCIDENTS IN FOCUS
Of the 2,331 confirmed incidents, 419 involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activities. Incidents included in this category involved illegal possession, movement or attempts to illegally trade in or use nuclear material or radioactive sources. Sixteen incidents in this category involved high enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. There were 615 incidents reported that involved the theft or loss of nuclear or other radioactive material and a total of 1,244 cases involving other unauthorized activities, including the unauthorized disposal of radioactive materials or discovery of uncontrolled sources. Of the total of 2,331 incidents reported, 91 involved natural uranium. This figure led the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency to conclude: “Even though the incidence of reports of this type of activity on an annual basis has been halved since the early 1990s, the continuation of reports shows that security and safeguards at uranium mines and mills can be improved even further.” (http://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2014/7062-mehium.pdf, p. 132).
THE PLUMBAT AFFAIR
In 1968, Euratom approved the purchase of uranium by Asmara Chemie, a West Germany chemical company, to buy uranium from the Belgian mineral company SGM, its shipment on the Scheersberg A to Genoa, Italy and its commercial processing by SAICA, an Italian paint company. In November, the Scheersburg set sail from Antwerp with 200 tonnes of uranium onboard. The sealed drums were labeled “plumbat” or lead. The Scheersberg, however, never showed up in Genoa; instead, the vessel arrived at the Turkish port of Iskenderum two weeks after she was due at Genoa, abandoned by the captain and crew and with the hull empty. Reportedly, the cargo had been transferred at sea to an Israeli ship, ultimately bound for Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor.
After the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, France ceased all supplies of uranium to Israel. While the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) had just been opened for signature, it did not enter in force until 1970. Euratom had controls on all of Europe’s uranium, but the decade-old organization was disorganized with member states disagreeing on a range of issues from reactor technologies and research funding to the pace of European integration. Euratom was also in the process of moving offices and files from Brussels to Luxembourg. It took Euratom upwards of 7 months to know for sure that the uranium had gone astray.
Ten years later, the affair became public in a book.