Police in the former Soviet republic of Moldova have arrested six people for allegedly trying to sell at least a kilo of weapons-grade uranium to undercover officers. Four of the suspects detained are Moldovans, and two are Russian passport holders from the neighboring republic of Transnistria. According to Moldova’s Interior Ministry official Vitalie Briceag, the material on sale was Uranium 235, the weapons-grade isotope of uranium, which in high concentrations is known as highly enriched uranium, or HEU. If that proves true, Wednesday’s arrests would mark one of the biggest nuclear security breaches of the last decade.
This week’s arrests are the result of a coordinated four-month operation that involved police in the U.S., Germany, and Ukraine, Briceag says. The U.S. spends close to $2 billion a year on anti-proliferation, both monitoring and policing the underground trade in loose nukes.
In the end, the would-be smugglers in Moldova were tricked into attempting to sell uranium to policemen posing as North African buyers. According to Briceag, the sample shipment confiscated in Moldova had come from Transnistria, a breakaway republic sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova that thrives on smuggling everything from weapons to alcohol and human organs.
“Transnistria is a black hole; neither we nor any other Western security service can control the black market there,” Briceag told a press conference Wednesday. “This situation has to be changed in the interest of global peace.”
At the same time, Russian nuclear specialists have been quick to pour cold water both on suggestions that the material was in fact HEU and on claims by Moldovan police that the material may ultimately be traceable to Russia. For one, the €20 million price tag quoted by the smugglers is way too low for real HEU, says Sergey Novikov, spokesman for Russia’s nuclear-energy corporation, Rosatom. Moreover, Rosatom claims that security in Russia’s nuclear installations is now so tight that “not even low-grade uranium has appeared on the black market” in more than a decade. Novikov says, “This Moldovan story is grandmother’s fairy tales.”
Experts in the U.S. agree that Russia has come a long way from the scary days of the early 1990s, when nuclear scientists went unpaid for months and guards at nuclear facilities left their posts to go foraging in the forests for food. Declassified documents from 1994 released earlier this month paint a disturbing picture of post-Soviet Russia, a place where “no system of nuclear accounting existed” and stolen nuclear materials began showing up on the black market in Leningrad, Istanbul, and Munich.
Since then, in large part thanks to billions in assistance from the U.S. government, Russia seems to have cleaned up its act. Harvard’s Matthew Bunn produced a landmark report last year that gave Moscow high marks for nuclear security. A revived Russian economy “has largely eliminated the 1990s-era desperation that created unique incentives and opportunities for nuclear theft,” Bunn wrote. And the “strengthened central control and the renewed strength of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, undoubtedly also contribute to deterring attempts at nuclear theft.” He concluded, “Overall, the risk of nuclear theft in Russia has been reduced to a fraction of what it was a decade ago.”
Russian officials are proud to underscore the point today. Duma member and former KGB colonel Gennady Gudkov, now deputy head of the Russian Parliament’s Security Committee, confirms that Russia has taken the threat of loose nukes very seriously.
At the same time, however, Gudkov recounts how nuclear specialists came to see him as recently as 2009 to express concern about continued theft of low-grade uranium from supposedly secure facilities. The scientists told him that empty “containers of low enriched uranium can sometimes be found discarded at bus stops” near their facility. “We did take additional measures and improved the law on the security of radioactive materials in 2004,” says Gudkov, “but apparently it was not enough.”
Concerning the case in Moldova, the difference is significant between unenriched uranium, which contains between 1 and 7 percent of the weapons-grade uranium 235, and the highly enriched variant, known as HEU, which is up to 90 percent pure. Ordinary uranium is certainly radioactive, and could cause contamination if mixed with conventional explosives—a so-called dirty bomb. Enriched to 20 percent, it can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors. But find 20 kilos of 90 percent pure HEU and you can build a real nuclear warhead, according to Maxim Shingarkin, a former major in the Russian military's secretive 12th Department, which is in charge of strategic nukes, and now an independent expert on nuclear and radioactive materials. That about a kilo is at issue in Moldova makes talk of a warhead far off, but it is hardly harmless.
As it stands, there’s a lot in the case that doesn’t add up. The several kilos of uranium allegedly for sale, if it were really HEU, would represent one of the biggest nuclear security breaches of the last decade. Yet the would-be smugglers look more like muggers than Bond villains—at least judging by surveillance video released by the Moldovan Interior Ministry.
One alleged smuggler stands in the courtyard of a slum dwelling surrounded with drying laundry and roosters. He offers to drop the price for the uranium from €100 million to €20 million in slangy, uneducated Russian. It may well be that those apprehended are lowly couriers, echoing a 2006 nuclear smuggling case in Georgia where several Georgian nationals were arrested with a small amount of low-grade uranium in Tbilisi, but the shadowy Russian sellers with whom undercover Georgian police posing as sellers have been in contact with stayed well away.
Georgian police reported another alleged group of Russian nuclear traffickers in 2010, and smugglers carrying over a kilo of low-enriched uranium were arrested in Moldova the same year. It’s not clear if these incidents are related to Wednesday’s arrests.