Radioactive Material is Still Missing in Malaysia: Cause for Concern?

September 14, 2018
Francisco Parada, Margarita Kalinina-Pohl, Miles A. Pomper

The following is an excerpt from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

A radioactive source was reported missing on August 10 in Malaysia. Since then, Malaysian authorities have expressed growing concern about the possible use of this material in a terrorist attack. The reality is that this material could be used to build a radiological dispersal device (RDD), commonly known as a “dirty bomb,” and it can be found virtually in any country in the world.

Before getting into the details of the event it is worth mentioning that The New Straits Times (Malaysian news agency) apparently jumped to conclusions, reporting: “Authorities are frantically looking for a 23kg Radioactive Dispersal Device (RDD).” After this report, other news sources picked up the term RDD in their coverage, despite the lack of credible information on the whereabouts or potential uses of the radioactive material.

According to records from the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, there have been more than 16 cases involving the theft or loss of radioactive material since the 1990s, with the last incident reported in February 2017. Reports of the present incident in Malaysia indicate that the source “was being transported 30 miles from the town of Seremban to Shah Alam on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the capital.” The missing device is an industrial radiography unit with an iridium 192 isotope used for non-destructive testing. Without knowing the specific activity (i.e., the concentration of radioactivity) of the isotope, one cannot be sure of its precise potential harm, but commonly, this type of device is considered to be, in plain language, very dangerous.Nevertheless, to pose a threat, the radioactive isotope, contained in metal discs, must be taken out of its shielding container. This is not something that happens when it is operated appropriately. Moreover, because of the isotope’s relatively short half-life of 73 days, the risk decreases fairly rapidly over time. As of last year, there were approximately 8,000 radioactive sources used in non-destructive testing in Malaysia. Such devices are often employed in the oil and gas industry (a major one in Indonesia) to essentially x-ray pipelines and other structures for fissures.

Continue reading at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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