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3 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM

Missing iridium: Enhancing regional nuclear security

Mely Caballero-Anthony

An industrial device containing radioactive material reported missing by Malaysian authorities on 20 August 2018 is a reminder that nuclear security is an important security issue that needs attention in Southeast Asia. The device was lost while being transported from Seremban in Negri Sembilan to Shah Alam, Selangor by two technicians of a company that provides testing, calibration and inspection services to heavy industries.

There are concerns that the unknown amount of radioactive iridium contained in the device could cause radiation exposure or be used as a weapon, otherwise known as “dirty bomb”. Although there is no nuclear power plant in the region currently, radioactive sources are widely used for civilian applications in medical, industrial, agricultural, and scientific research fields. Without stringent oversight on the use and handling of radioactive materials, there are potential risks of these being accidentally leaked, stolen and used for malicious purposes, or released indiscriminately by non-state actors/terrorists through ‘dirty bombs’.

Hence, a key point to note is that the security of radiological material is an important component of nuclear security. According to the latest Global Incidents and Trafficking Database prepared by the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), there were 870 reported incidents involving radioactive materials (theft, missing, leaked, smuggled etc) from 51 countries between 2013 and 2017.

Four of such incidents were reported in Southeast Asia, including one case in Malaysia last year. The need to strengthen radiological security cannot therefore be overstated.

This recent incident highlights the importance of nuclear security to ASEAN. While nuclear security is often understood to be about securing nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, it is also very much about the security of radioactive materials. As defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear security is “the prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities”.

Even in the nuclear weapon-free Southeast Asia, there is a broad range of legitimate uses of radioactive material especially in industrial facilities, hospitals, research reactors, and scientific laboratories. For instance, radioactive sources are present in 17 hospitals in Thailand and seven hospitals in the Philippines.

Radioactive material is under the State’s regulatory, export and licensing control, but unauthorised removal or loss puts the material out of regulatory control. This is where the potential risk of this being used by an adversary in a malicious act is present. This risk has clear transborder implications.

The risk in the region is further magnified with the presence of extremist groups wanting to use ‘dirty bombs’, weak maritime security, insufficient border and export controls, and scarcity of adequately trained radiological security responders. The chance that a malicious actor or group could try to get access to radioactive material cannot be ignored.

But apart from the immediate impact of a radiological leak, attack or explosion, there are four major transboundary consequences associated with a nuclear security incident ̶ health, economic, societal and environmental. These consequences are all non-traditional security concerns which should compel all ASEAN member states to enhance cooperation on nuclear security.

Establishing an effective and sustainable nuclear security infrastructure is crucial for the protection of states, people, society and the environment. In ASEAN, there are in place building blocks of a nuclear security infrastructure that needs to be strengthened, beginning with every state that utilises nuclear technology and radioactive material.

National governments are responsible for legal and regulatory framework that governs how security at relevant facilities are maintained and how radioactive material is managed, utilised and transported. While not all ASEAN member states have ratified legally binding nuclear security conventions and voluntarily developed national regulations based on IAEA’s code of conduct and guidance on the security of radioactive material, regional cooperation frameworks can help member states strengthen nuclear security.

The ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM) focuses on sharing of best practices, exchange of experiences, assisting ASEAN member states in enhancing their regulatory frameworks, and capacity building through training courses and technical collaboration with other international organisations such as the IAEA and European Commission.

Eurasia Review



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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