Only a few weeks after Georgia’s president attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., law enforcement nabbed illegal uranium dealers in his own backyard, in the country’s capital of Tbilisi. The arrests stoked fears of an underground nuclear market, of radiation leakage, and of terrorists working on a dirty bomb. With accounts of local Muslims in Georgia joining up with ISIS, not to mention a brewing conflict between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgians have good reason to be worried.
According to authorities, six men—three Georgians and three Armenians—were trying to sell a few kilos of uranium for $200 million. Four of the six were pensioners and the other two worked as taxi drivers. A Tbilisi court convicted all the smugglers and they face up to 10 years in prison.
The smugglers were arrested in a private apartment in a joint special operation by Georgian counterintelligence and special-ops departments “for illegal handling of nuclear materials,” according to the State Security Service of Georgia.
What’s worrisome for Georgia is that this is the second known case of nuclear smuggling in less than six months. In January, the State Security Department detained three members of a criminal group “for the illegal handling and selling of nuclear material,” specifically the radioactive isotope Cesium-137, officials told The Daily Beast.
The Cesium-137 sellers had pocketed $100,000 when authorities caught up with them; the taxi drivers and retirees were looking for $200 million. According to the World Bank, up to 27 percent of the Georgian population and up to 37 percent of Armenians live below the poverty line. The Caucasus are full of men desperate to make money, even if that involves the risk of imprisonment.
Georgian authorities have been struggling to put the end to the underground radioactive market for years. “The deals on nuclear materials happen here every year; people regularly smuggle radioactive substances from Russia via Georgia to Turkey or Iran,” a political expert, former Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili, told The Daily Beast. Utiashvili pointed out that in 2010, Georgian authorities made two major seizures of highly enriched uranium (HEU). Tests at the time confirmed that the materials, enriched by 89.4 percent, could be used for making a nuclear bomb. The two smugglers, a businessman and a physicist from Armenia, pleaded guilty for smuggling the package with HEU by train from Yerevan to Tbilisi in 2010.
The head of the Nuclear Waste department at the country’s Agency of Nuclear and Radiation Safety, Georgiy Nabaxtiani, insisted that Georgia had been working hard to take control over radioactive deals since early 1990s. “We now have much stricter regulations—our borders are very well controlled, we scan both pedestrians and vehicles for radiation,” Nabaxtiani told The Daily Beast. “This time the dealers did not cross the border, they were trying to sell a few kilos of Uranium-238 inside Georgian territory. The investigators are trying to find out where they had obtained the uranium.”
Chief among the concerns of nuclear watchdog agencies is the idea that terrorist groups such as ISIS could be trying to obtain radioactive material via the Georgian black market. “If there is a demand for enriched uranium among terrorists trying to build a bomb, this is very concerning, as there are still hundreds of tons of highly radioactive materials stored in Russia and post Soviet States,” an independent military expert based in Moscow, Alexander Golts, told The Daily Beast. “But in any case they would need complicated industrial technologies to make a nuclear bomb,” he added.
So why is Georgia more in the news for radioactive deals than other post-Soviet countries? “It is difficult to pinpoint why Georgia continues to be a hot spot for nuclear trafficking,” Yelena Sokolova, deputy director for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told The Daily Beast. “It is due to its geographical location on the pathway from Europe to the Middle East, a long history of illicit trade, and trafficking in other goods in the region.
Sokolova added that so far, all seizures in Georgia have either been the result of police sting operations or accidental discoveries. “There have been reports about alleged buyers for nuclear and radioactive materials coming either from the Middle East or North Africa,” she said.
Authorities in both the North and South Caucuses regions have registered attempts by criminals to smuggle radioactive materials, but not all of the substances would be worth the risk of going to jail for 10 years. “It is a continuing mystery how people can offer a few grams of a common material of no real value as a sample of tons of something they probably do not even have that has no real threat to society,” Robert Kelly, a senior research fellow within the SIPRI Nuclear Weapons Project, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Program, noted to The Daily Beast.
Could one really sell a few kilos of Uranium-238 for $200 million? Today’s market price for Uranium-238 is about $27 per pound. If Georgian dealers were aware of the real prices, to make $200 million, they’d have to sell 3,700 tons of uranium, which would necessitate a long line of trucks full of the stuff, Kelly said.
“The bottom line is that only idiots would pay $200 million for Uranium-238 in any form and even if they succeeded in buying it, it is barely radioactive and would be of very little health hazard to anyone, except someone who would eat handfuls of it,” said Kelly, who is a veteran of over 35 years in the U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons complex.
Still, the fact that none of the buyers of the radioactive material have been identified or arrested seems concerning to local observers. The recent arrests have made Georgians feel vulnerable to the threat of international terrorism, especially considering the fact that dozens of their countrymen are joining ISIS each year. “I am not surprised that pensioners, who often do not have money for food and medicine, were trying to sell uranium, risking their freedom for the money they were promised,” the executive director of Europe House, Maia Nikolaishvili, told The Daily Beast. “As a mother,” she added, “I am very worried of the terrorism threat.”