[rev_slider alias="blog-post-header"]


Dec 9, 2013 | Commentary

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited “the third largest nuclear weapon stockpile” after Russia and the United States. Ukraine became nuclear-weapon-free in 1996, after committing to fully disarm in 1994. Yet, the trafficking and smuggling of harmful materials across Ukraine’s border remains a serious security risk requiring immediate attention.

On November 27, 2013, the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine (PCU), together with the OSCE Office for Economic and Environmental Activities, organized a five-day training session on detecting radioactive materials and environmentally sensitive commodities at border crossings in Ukraine. In total 59 people were trained, including border guards, environmental inspectors, customs officers, and representatives from the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine. The focus of the training was to detect metal scrap polluted with radioactive elements, harmful waste/ozone-depletion substances, as well as rare/endangered animal and plant species. Ambassador Madina Jarbussynova of Kazakhstan, the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in the Ukraine said:

“With the growing volume of people and goods crossing our borders every year, ensuring that environmentally dangerous commodities are detected at crossings, and no harm is caused to nature or people is key to the country’s security… The responsibility to respond to such threats falls on those who safeguard our borders.”

Earlier in October 2013, another workshop on radiological control and prevention of environmental crimes took place in the Ukraine. The workshop was geared towards environmental inspectors, border guards, and customs officers. According to Vladimir Lazarev, Head of the Department for Environmental Control of Natural Resources of the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine, there are currently 290 environmental check-points and 825 inspectors at various border crossings and customs areas in Ukraine.

The 2007 reference manualCombating Illicit Trafficking in Nuclear and Other Radioactive Material, by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states that adequate detection and response to nuclear trafficking is part of a comprehensive nuclear security program. Between 1993 and 2006, the IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) records that approximately 54% cases of trafficking are related to illegal trafficking, showing “evidence of criminal activity such as theft or illegal possession, and attempts to sell or smuggle nuclear or radioactive material across national borders”. Despite a decline in the number of such incidents between 1994 and 1996, there has been a gradual increase in the smuggling of these materials since then.

At present, the U.S. government’s Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative (NSOI) is involved in various projects to combat nuclear smuggling in Ukraine. Project activities include improving the ability to detect trafficked nuclear material by providing tools such as handheld radiation detectors, central alarm stations, vehicles, and other communication materials.

Combating nuclear trafficking is a collaborative effort. For example, on April 23, 2013, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius signed a partnership to combat nuclear terrorism, with a focus on advancing protection against nuclear and radiological smuggling. On October 22, 2013 the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) held a regional nuclear forensics workshop in Bangkok, Thailand. The workshop focused on nonproliferation nuclear forensics to advance the capacity of the Asia-Pacific region to prevent the illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials. The IAEA’s Nuclear Security Plan 2014-2017 notes that the misuse of nuclear and other radioactive materials remains a threat to international security. Although the topic of nuclear trafficking is only addressed briefly, the Security Plan supports research projects geared towards combating the trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials. Assistance is provided in the form of technical support and network building to promote information exchange.

The IAEA states that the attacks of 9/11 had a vital impact on the global security landscape, particularly on nuclear security. The attacks demonstrated that national borders are not a safeguard against attacks and that there “was no limit to the willingness and desire to cause harm” (IAEA). The trafficking of illicit and nuclear material remains a high security threat, with the UN Security Council calling for all Member States to comply and commit to arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Ultimately, the goal is to prevent individuals to gain access to harmful materials by promoting and establishing a culture around nuclear security.


Anni-Claudine Buelles is a Research and Communications Intern with the Security Governance Group.