Iodine-131 as yet Another Example of a CBRN Threat to the EU


Early in November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that very low levels of Iodine-131 (I-131) were detected in the atmosphere above at least six EU Member States. Later that same month, the IAEA notified that it had “most probably” identified the Institute of Isotopes in Hungary as the source of the radiation. In a reaction towards this allegation the director admitted a leak was found at the Budapest-based Institute. However, according to him it is “extremely unlikely” that the Institute of Isotopes was the source of relatively high levels of I-131 traced in the EU countries. The exact cause of the release is still under investigation by the IAEA.


I-131 is a radioactive form of Iodine and is produced by the fission of uranium atoms during operation of nuclear reactors and by plutonium (or uranium) in the detonation of nuclear weapons. It has a half-life of about eight days and is also used in medicine to diagnose and treat disorders of the thyroid gland, as this gland easily absorbs iodine. Exposure to large amounts of I-131 is dangerous to human health. External exposure to large amounts can cause burns. Internal exposure in significant quantities can cause cancer, particularly in the thyroid gland. Internal exposure can take place through the inhalation of I-131 contaminated air or when ingested through food or water. Pregnant women and young children are especially susceptible to the effects of I-131 ingestion. Normally, no traces of I-131 should be detectable in rainwater or milk. In the weeks after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011 I-131 was measured on the US West Coast. In Europe, I-131 was detected after the Chernobyl disaster took place in 1986. It is important to mention that the levels traced in November 2011 are extremely low compared to rates observed after the Chernobyl tragedy.


Radiological hazards


By all accounts, the latest ‘I-131 case’ could hardly have any serious consequences for health and environment. However, it exemplifies the on-going threat that the EU faces from CBRN incidents, regardless of whether or not they are the consequences of natural or man-made disasters or accidents. Besides that, the case underlines the cross-border impact of CBRN incidents and the dependency of the various Member States on one another. Until now, radiological terrorist killing of more than one person has not been reported. All radiological substances can be potentially harmful if people are exposed. Most cases of people exposed to radiation have happened by accident. Unlike chemical and biological substances, radiological materials cannot be “neutralised” and many radiological materials have half-lives measured in many years. Radiological incidents are clearly a threat to human health and if densely populated, industrial or financial districts have to be evacuated following the detection there of radiological material it could have far-reaching economic consequences.

Terrorist have shown interest in I-131. In the 1970s the radiological material was used in terrorist attacks. In April 1974, in Austin, Texas, a domestic American group sprayed railway compartment cars with the radioactive material. As a consequence, six people were affected. I-131 was also used in the mid-1970s by Palestinian terrorists to contaminate a train in Austria. Even today, terrorists examine the possible consequences of I-131. In his 1500 page manifesto, ‘A European Declaration of Independence’ terrorist and right-wing extremist Anders Breivik investigates possibilities for radioactive contamination. He classifies Iodine among high level contaminators.

“Dirty bomb”

Breivik, moreover, pays special attention to Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs) also known as “dirty bombs”. He values this weapon greatly for its usefulness as a weapon to disrupt societies. Furthermore, al-Qaeda has openly expressed its desire to produce radiological weapons. According to the CIA, the group could easily construct a RDD. For this reason it is crucial that terrorists like Breivik or members of al-Qaeda do not gain access to radiological facilities like the Institute of Isotopes. Terrorist groups armed with radiological weapons can be one of the serious risks our society faces. Unlike nuclear weapons, RDDs are not very hard to acquire, transport or build. A “dirty bomb” does not trigger a nuclear reaction or involve a nuclear explosion. It consists of a high explosive, (e.g. Semtex, dynamite or TNT), incendiary material (e.g. thermite), and radioactive material. The detonation of a RDD would contaminate personnel, equipment, facilities, and terrain. The fire caused by the incendiary material would carry the radioactivity up into the air, further spreading contamination.

The consequences of a “dirty bomb” are twofold. Firstly, detonation of a RDD would result in immediate deaths and serious injuries, caused by conventional explosive. Effects on the health of those exposed to radioactivity depends upon how long they remain in the contaminated area, the size of the particles released by the explosion, and the type of radioactivity emitted. Secondly, while such weapons would bring about far less damage than a nuclear explosion, which would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties, RDDs have enormous power to intimidate and also have the potential to cause serious social, psychological and economic disruption. Decontamination would be very costly and would last for weeks, if not months.

Orphan sources

RDDs are constructed with the intention to damage society. We can also identify unintentional radiological man-made incidents. Common accidents involving radioactive materials are the consequence of so-called orphan sources. According to the IAEA “An orphan source is a radioactive source that poses sufficient radiological hazard to warrant regulatory control, but which is not under regulatory control because it has never been so, or because it has been abandoned, lost, misplaced, stolen or otherwise transferred without proper authorisation”. Since in some regions the control of radioactive sources is non-existent and in other areas inadequate, these orphan sources are widely available throughout the world. Despite stronger regulatory frameworks in most countries the amount of available radioactive materials throughout the world is increasing. Primarily as a consequence of the industrialisation of developing regions, the use of radiological sources has increased. Moreover, old sources are being regularly replaced by new.

It is estimated that in the EU area approximately 30,000 disused radiological sources can be found of which up to 70 sources per year are said to be orphaned. Moreover, on the external side of the EU border with the former Soviet Union it is estimated that there are thousands of orphan sources of high threat category. Across the Atlantic, probably the most infamous incident with an orphan source took place in Goiânia, Brazil in 1987, when radioactive material coming from a hospital ended up at a scrap dealer. It took two weeks, after the scrap dealer and his family developed symptoms of radiation poisoning (nausea, vomiting, burns and ultimately death), before the illness was connected to the hospital material. By the time the radioactivity had been identified and the government informed, radioactive powder from the source had already been spread over a large area. Four people died as a result of radiation poisoning and 28 more received local radiation damage. 112,000 people sought medical attention. 600 sought attention for contamination but only 248 were actually contaminated.

Trade in nuclear material

According to the research ‘Securing Air Traffic: case CBRN terrorism’ conducted by the University of Helsinki, “nuclear material that is directly usable for weapons and explosive devices exists in about 40 states. In many of those states, nuclear material can become available to terrorists.” “Particularly vulnerable areas are understood to be in Pakistan (…) and in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, VV), where the security situation is deteriorating. The threat of disseminating material and knowledge to unknown purposes is possibly increasing. In Russia the security measures, including the physical protection of facilities and material have been improved during the past 15 years (…), but the work is not yet completed.”

Even within the borders of the EU, illegal trade in nuclear material takes place: in 2007, two people were arrested in Bratislava, Slovakia when the police caught them, supposedly, selling 2.2 pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) with a value of $1,000,000. HEU is the critical ingredient for making a nuclear warhead. There are many examples of trade in nuclear material at EU borders. For instance, in 2008, a load of uranium and caesium, worth $4,900,000, was captured in the Ukraine. The nuclear material was stolen from a nuclear facility in Kiev. Furthermore, in 2010, two individuals pleaded guilty to smuggling HEU into Georgia. It was the third time in seven years that HEU had been intercepted in Georgia. Obviously, it takes a lot more than obtaining materials such as HEU to build a nuclear device. Nevertheless, the above mentioned cases should be of concern to EU Member States: illicit trade and trafficking in nuclear materials is present within, at and near the borders of the EU.

CBRN Incidents

In recent years we have seen an increase in the frequency and scale of natural and man-made disasters in Europe. The majority of CBRN incidents cannot be considered as accidents. From so-called ‘lone wolves’ to Islamic fundamentalist and from right-wing extremists to regionalist separatists, one can see a growing risk posed by terrorist groups seeking to get access to and use CBRN materials. As a consequence, governments need to prepare for the unthinkable: the aftermath of a terrorist attack using CBRN weapons. Despite the fact that, in the years following 9/11, Europe has been hit by a number of atrocious terrorist attacks, it has thwarted many others. Terrorists used CBRN agents in only a limited number of attempts. Consequently, the quantity of terrorist attacks involving CBRN agents is small. However, the consequences of a CBRN attack can be far more devastating than the aftermath of a terrorist attack carried out with conventional means.

Terrorist have to rely on criminal groups for access to chemicals. According to the Europol ‘EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2011’, the connection between terrorist and organised crime groups’ activities is an issue of growing concern. This means that an increasing number of terrorist groups have contact with organised crime groups in order to procure weapons.

EU Action Against CBRN Threats

As illustrated previously, the EU faces a variety of CBRN threats. Therefore, at EU level it is crucial to design a policy for preventing CBRN incidents that is as coherent as possible. Next to that, the EU should be well prepared for the aftermath of a CBRN incident. The second part of this report will concentrate on two policy tools the European Commission currently has in the fight against CBRN threats: the EU CBRN Action Plan and the EU Internal Security Strategy, which respectively entered into force in 2009 and 2010.

EU CBRN Action Plan and the EU Internal Security Strategy

The EU CBRN Action Plan identifies three main arenas of work: prevention, detection and preparedness and response. In order to prevent CBRN incidents the Action Plan advocates the use of risk-assessments to prioritise high-risk CBRN materials, and then focus on the security and control of these materials and their related facilities. Moreover, the EU wishes to set up detection systems within the Member States and at its own external borders. At EU level, minimum CBRN detection standards will be established, and exchanges of good practices will be enhanced. The EU also aims to improve preparedness and response by raising awareness and increasing knowledge and information sharing on CBRN related subjects. Finally, it wants to amend response and emergency planning and means to increases the chances of finding and prosecuting terrorists and other criminals.

The EU Internal Security Strategy proposes five strategic objectives for the Member States to work together to be more effective: in fighting and preventing organised crime; terrorism; and cybercrime; to strengthen the management of the external borders and to build resilience to natural and man-made disasters. Regarding CBRN threats, two objectives are of importance: firstly, in order to “cut off terrorists’ access to funding and materials” the EU should set up a network of CBRN law enforcement units, ensuring that Member States take CBRN risks into consideration into their national planning. Moreover, the EU means to establish a law enforcement Early Warning System at Europol for incidents relating to CBRN materials. Secondly, the EU wants to increase resilience to CBRN disasters. Therefore, management practices in terms of efficiency and coherence at EU level need to be improved.

Three Weaknesses

In both the Action Plan and the EU Internal Security Strategy the EU acknowledges a current lack of measures in the fight against CBRN incidents. Through the announcement of policy-adjustment the EU hopes to start improving prevention of and response to CBRN incidents. Nonetheless, one can distinguish three weaknesses the EU should deal with in its response to CBRN threats.

In the first place, since the responsibility to respond to CBRN threats mainly lies within the Member States, the EU does not have many competencies to coordinate action against them. Second, the Union has not yet created an EU-wide regulatory regime to prevent the diversion of CBRN materials for terrorist’s purposes. EU rules on the security of CBRN materials are only designed to prevent industrial mismanagement and accidental environmental damage. Finally, EU Member States Home Affairs ministers differ in how they implement EU legislation. Some consider EU security agreements as sets of minimum standards to which they can add additional measures. Others consider EU rules primarily as suggestions.

Despite the fact that “many of today’s security challenges are cross-border and cross-sectoral in nature and that (…) no single Member State is able to respond to these threats on its own”, most Member States are not willing to assign more responsibilities to the EU on the subject of internal security, particularly in the area of intelligence. One can see a discrepancy in the Schengen Treaty, on the one hand and the way the various intelligence services operate on the other. EU citizens are able to cross national boundaries without limitations while, at the same time, the jurisdiction of the different national intelligence agencies stops at the border. Moreover, in recent years there has been an increase in the frequency and scale of natural and man-made disasters in the EU. According to the EU Internal Security Strategy, “this has demonstrated the need for a stronger, more coherent and better integrated European crisis and disaster response capacity as well as for the implementation of existing disaster prevention policies and legislation”. For example, taking the I-131 case into account we cannot identify a single European nuclear watchdog, where every Member State has, at least, one nuclear agency. The I-131 case indicates that in several EU countries, including Hungary, the licensing and surveillance of the nuclear facilities and the laboratories using high amounts of radioisotopes are in the hands of different authorities. The administrative difficulties arising from this ambiguous arrangement probably account for the fact that the investigation into the definite source of the radiation of I-131 has been hampered until today.

Furthermore, taking the I-131 case into consideration, the EU could be well advised to, apart from updating its own mechanisms, support global systems for prevention and detection. Regarding radiological threats, for instance, the preparatory commission for the comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty organization (CTBTO) has already made good progress in creating a global system of surveillance of radionucleoids in the atmosphere.


The EU recognises the problems it faces in combatting CBRN incidents. Because the EU does not have many competencies regarding the internal security of the Member States, the responsibility for responding to CBRN terrorism and dealing with the aftermath of (cross-border) CBRN incidents lies in the hands of the Member States. However, most Member States seem reluctant to give up more independence in the field of security while being unable to handle a CBRN crisis without help from other adequately. Moreover, politicians are afraid to appear weak if they request other Member States for help. Consequently, a comparison with the current Euro-crisis can be drawn: national interests in the short term appear to be more important than the EU’s interests which, are of main importance to all the Member States in the long term.   

Politicians need to be reminded that the CBRN threat the EU faces is real. In the prevention and preparation for the response to the aftermath of a natural or man-made CBRN incident the EU Member States should focus on one keyword: co-operation. Within the current framework, an increase in co-operation without the violation of fundamental rights, such as privacy, is possible. To achieve this, the various Member States should seriously consider transferring more competencies to the EU regarding the subject of security. The EU, on its side should explore the possibilities and modalities for creating central agencies to help better manage cooperation in order to prevent CBRN incidents and to provide adequate support and responses to CBRN disasters.


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