Fissile Material Trafficking in the Newly Independent States (NIS) 1991-2001

November 30, 2001

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there have been frequent reports of illicit trafficking in fissile materials from the NIS. Especially since the events of September 11, 2001, there has been widespread concern that terrorist organizations or proliferant states may illicitly obtain fissile material from the NIS. Looking closely at the available open-source evidence, one can identify 13 confirmed cases in which more than minuscule quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium have been stolen or diverted from nuclear facilities in NIS. In five of these cases, the material was exported beyond the NIS before it was recovered. In seven other cases, the material was seized before it left the NIS. In one case, the whereabouts of the stolen material remain unknown. Aside from these 13 cases, in one additional case, an attempted theft at a Russian nuclear facility was thwarted before the conspirators removed the material involved from the site. All of these incidents are of proliferation concern because of the type and quantity of material involved and/or because of the circumstances surrounding them. Each case, with the possible exception of the 1993 St. Petersburg incident, can be regarded as confirmed because multiple independent sources corroborate the diversion and the quantity and enrichment level of the material involved.

Overview of Confirmed Proliferation-Significant Incidents of Fissile Material Trafficking in the NIS, 1991-2001

1.5 kg of 90% HEU Luch Scientific Production Association, Podolsk, Russia 10/9/92: Russian police operation intercepted the smugglers in the Podolsk train station.
Vilnius, Lithuania
early 1992
About 100 g 50% HEU Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, Obninsk,Russia 5/93: Approximately 100 g HEU discovered in Vilnius bank vault embedded in portions of a shipment of four metric tons of beryllium.
Andreeva Guba
1.8 kg of 36% HEU Naval base storage facility, Andreeva Guba, Russia 7/29/93: Russian security forces arrested the thieves before they could smuggle the material out of Russia.
6.15 g of Plutonium-239 Unconfirmed; possibly Arzamas-16, Russia 5/10/94: Police in suspect’s apartment for another reason, stumbled upon the cache of plutonium.
800 mg of 87.7% HEU Unconfirmed; likely Obninsk 6/13/94: Undercover German police acted as potential customers in a sting operation.
4.5 kg of 20% HEU Naval shipyard, Sevmorput, Russia 6/94: The brother of a suspect asked a co-worker for help finding a customer. The co-worker notified authorities.
560 g MOX fuel; 363 g of Plutonium-239 Unconfirmed; likely Obninsk 8/10/94: Undercover German police acted as potential customers in a sting operation.
2.7 kg of 87.7% HEU Unconfirmed; likely Obninsk 12/14/94: Anonymous tip to police giving the material’s location (a parked car). In two instances in June 1995, Czech authorities recovered small additional amounts of HEU believed to be from the same source.
St. Petersburg[*]
3.05 kg of 90% HEU Unconfirmed; likely Machine Building Plant, Elektrostal, Russia 6/8/94: Russian news agencies report that in March 1994, Russian Federal Security Service agents arrested three suspects attempting to sell about three kg of HEU. Russian officials have confirmed the incident.
May 1994
1.7 kg HEU Elektrostal 6/8/95: In a sting operation, Russian Federal Security Service agents arrested three suspects trying to sell HEU, one of whom was an employee of Elektrostal.
Approximately 2 kg of 90% HEU I.N. Vekua Physics and Technology Institute, Sukhumi, Georgia 12/97: Russian inspection team visited facility, which had been closed by 1992 Abkhazian-Georgian conflict, and found facility abandoned, and material included in 1992 inventory missing. Material has not been recovered.
Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia
18.5kg HEU (enrichment level unspecified) Unknown, possibly Mayak Production Association, Chelyabinsk-70, or Zlatoust-36 12/17/98: Russian Federal Security service reports that it thwarted an attempt by workers at a nuclear facility in Chelyabinsk Oblast to steal 18.5 kg nuclear material. 10/00: Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy official confirms incident involved HEU.
Dunav Most, Bulgaria
10 g 76% HEU Unknown 5/29/99: Bulgarian customs officers discovered HEU hidden in the trunk of a car crossing into Bulgaria from Turkey. Driver said he had obtained material in Moldova.
Batumi, Georgia
920 g 30% HEU Unknown 4/19/00: Georgian police arrested four suspects and seized HEU.
[*] This case is included in the list of confirmed trafficking incidents largely on the basis of reports made to the International Atomic Energy Agency by the Russian Federation. Additional corroborating evidence, however, is not readily available.

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