Unsecured Radiological Materials in Eastern Ukraine: a Growing Threat

The difficult political and economic situation in Ukraine, coupled with the deeply rooted influence of organised crime, has created favourable conditions for the trafficking of radiological materials. More efforts should be made to secure radiological sources and curtail the operations of organised crime networks.

In a report submitted to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, it was revealed that approximately 1200 radiological sources in Eastern Ukraine remain outside the regulatory control of the government in Kiev. This situation could allow criminal organizations to obtain unregulated radiological materials and smuggle them outside Ukraine.

The risk of illicit trafficking is further heightened by the general absence of governmental oversight in parts of Eastern Ukraine, the nexus of organized crime and militia groups operating there, and the economic hardship of the local population.

These economic and social factors exacerbate conditions under which illicit trafficking can thrive, and are particularly present in the Donbass region, where a significant amount of radiological materials remain outside of governmental oversight. There are also risks that radiological materials could be trafficked from Eastern Ukraine to Western Europe.

The Economic and Social Context

Studies on the drugs and smalls arms trades find that illicit trafficking mostly thrives in underdeveloped areas of the world. In most cases, unemployment and economic hardship motivate individuals to engage in smuggling. The absence of civil society also facilitates illicit trafficking. A shortage of trust in the state and its institutions, along with a dysfunctional relationship between the government, domestic law, and society, significantly contributes to the likelihood and intensity of illicit trade. This situation can be further exacerbated by political upheaval or armed conflict that prevents states from reliably maintaining law and order. For this reason, illegal trafficking flourishes in post-conflict areas.

Donbass Region Today

Historically, Donbass has been Ukraine’s most industrialized region. It consists of two governmental districts (oblasts), Luhansk and Donetsk, which have played a key role in the mining, chemical and machine-building sectors. Donetsk was Ukraine’s most populous and heavily industrialized province, dominated by the mining industry. However, Donbass has been in constant decline since early 1990s. Over half of the local mines have been shut down and the region devolved from a net tax contributor to a net receiver.

Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, the economic situation in the region has significantly worsened. According to United Nations (UN) briefings on the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine, at the end of 2015 approximately 800,000 people were living in dangerous conditions in territories between separatist and Ukrainian government-controlled areas.

Recently, the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic have effectively crippled Kiev’s authority to maintain law and order in Donbass. Due to the lack of governmental oversight, criminal activity in Donbass is extremely high. In Eastern Ukraine criminals have been sworn in as members of local militias and have even risen to senior ranks, while the police, long known for their corruption, are fighting alongside them. Many of the militia groups on both sides of the conflict have been reported to engage in criminal activities that include drug trafficking and smuggling rackets.

Radiological Risks

In addition to being economically depressed, Donbass is littered with radiological sources. According to the 2016 National Progress Report, Donbass is home to a specialized radioactive waste management enterprise, with 65 entities using sources of ionizing radiation as well as coal mining facilities that use 142 radiological sources in total. The majority of those materials could be used to build a radioactive dispersal device (RDD).

An RDD attack using the types of sources found in Donbass could render a significant area uninhabitable for years, cause major economic disruption (particularly if detonated at a maritime port), increase the cancer rate over the long term, and cause mass panic in the immediate aftermath of the attack. In these circumstances, radiological materials could become a highly lucrative commodity, attracting criminal groups working on behalf of terrorist organizations.

The IAEA defines 5 categories of radiological sources in its Code of Conduct based on their safety and security risk (Category 1 representing the greatest threat and Category 5 the least). According to the National Progress Report, unsecured radiological materials in Eastern Ukraine include a significant number of high activity category 1 and 2 sources, which are dubbed as most useful for terrorists. However, potential smugglers might be more likely to seek low activity sources – particularly unsealed powders and liquid sources – because they would cause the same psychological effects as high-activity sources if used in a dirty bomb, but would be easier to acquire, handle, and conceal during transport.

Many low-activity sources are located in mining facilities in Donbass and other industrial entities such as chemical plants in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian mining enterprise has been hit particularly hard by the civil war. Miners have been struggling to afford basic goods, which might force them to seek other sources of income, including cooperation with the separatist forces or organized criminal groups. In addition, the heavy industry in Donbass has always been under control of organized crime, whose influence is further bolstered by the separatist government. Indeed, based on unofficial reports, in July 2015 the Ukrainian Security Services discovered that Luhansk-based separatists had sold a number of sources of ionizing radiation from the occupied coal mine in the Luhansk region, which were recently found in the populated area of the Donetsk region.

Smuggling routes and types of smuggled goods in Eastern Ukraine

CreditSource: Novaya Gazeta | Smuggling routes and types of smuggled goods in Eastern Ukraine

Trafficking from Eastern Ukraine to Western Europe

The widespread connections between regional political elites and organized crime in Eastern Ukraine significantly increase the possibility of radiological materials smuggling. Moreover, many interests of the criminal groups in Donbass run parallel to the interests of the separatist authorities, the Russian government, and even some Ukrainian oligarchs, meaning that smuggling may be unofficially authorized and protected by the local authorities. That in turn might help establish secure smuggling routes and arrange “friendly” border security posts and safe havens where smugglers could exchange radiological materials for money.

The geographical location of Donbass region might also come in handy for a criminal group smuggling radiological materials out of Ukraine. The proximity of Donetsk and Luhansk to the ports of Odessa as well as Oktyabrsk (global hubs for illicit arms trafficking), may allow criminal groups to easily move goods outside Ukraine. Furthermore, smugglers could use common trails through Slovakia or Poland and exploit already established trafficking channels for drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Another possibility would be to smuggle radiological sources through Moldova and Romania, which then could be transported further west. Moldova, in particular, has been frequently mentioned as an exchange venue for nuclear materials, with organized criminal groups attempting to sell radioactive materials to extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Indeed, some analyses indicate that Transnistria, a separatist region in Moldova on the Ukrainian border backed by Russian forces, might function as a hub for radioactive and nuclear materials smuggling. Once outside of Ukraine, trafficking low activity radiological materials across EU borders would not be a difficult task. For example, a Category 3 or 4 source of americium-241 could be easily concealed in any vehicle and effectively shielded from radiation detection equipment.

Securing Radiological Sources

The state of lawlessness in Donbass, combined with high levels of unemployment and organized crime and a thriving black market, significantly heighten the risk of theft and smuggling of radiological materials from unsecured industrial facilities in Donetsk and Luhansk. Radiological materials could be obtained by a criminal group, which could use its connections with local authorities (including government officials, police departments, and border security) to smuggle those sources out of Ukraine and deliver them to a terrorist group in Western Europe. In this situation, more efforts should be made to secure radiological sources and to undermine the operations of smuggling networks in Eastern Ukraine.


Banner image: OSCE SMM monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine.


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