… and whilst we are looking at offences that are rarely charged, this pops into our inbox. It seems that thieves in Lancashire got slightly more than they bargained for when they broke into a car over the weekend. Instead of getting away with a handbag or a stereo, they’ve got a bottle of a radioactive substance (iridium-192 to be precise). The isotope is used in radiotherapy and has other industrial uses, but it can also be used to make a dirty bomb. If you really want to scare yourself, have a look at the Hazardous Substances Data Bank entry on it.
The thieves are, obviously, guilty of theft. But given the potential uses and misuses of nuclear material, is it illegal to possess?
Well, you can’t buy it in Sainburys for sure. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, illegal to have ‘radioactive material’ kicking around your office unless there is good reason for it and/or it is registered. ‘Radioactive Material’ is defined in s1 Radioactive Substances Act 1993 as being a substance listed in Sch 1 (which Iridium isn’t) or is substance that is radioactive, but not naturally radioactive (in essence). Iridium-191 and Iridium-193 are the only naturally occurring isotopes of Iridium, so Iridium-192 appears to be prohibited.
It is a criminal offence to have such material “on any premises which are used for the purposes of an undertaking carried on by him”. This is summary only, but with a maximum fine of £20,000. What if you’re not carring on a business however?
The Nuclear Material (Offences) Act 1983 (as amended by Sch 17 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008) provides some further food for thought. s1B(2) makes it an offence to have nuclear material whilst being reckless as to whether that would cause damage to the environment. The maximum is life imprisonment. It would raise some interesting questions as to whether an unregulated person having nuclear material is inherently reckless.
There is a problem however. Iridium is not a ‘nuclear material’ for the purposes of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities. For that reason, this will probably not apply. There are obviously many further offences that would be committed if the thieves were unwise enough to sell on the material, or use it for any nefarious purposes.
For this reason, it may be that by having the material the thieves are not committing an offence. There are a welter of regulations contained in Secondary Legislation, so it may be that there is something there however. The art of lawyering involves saying when you don’t know!
Either way – they would be advised to hand it in for their own safety, if no other reason, pretty quickly …