Uranium Seizure in Slovakia Produces Exaggerated News Reports

Alexander Melikishvili
December 21, 2007

Seizure of Uranium in Slovakia Produces Exaggerated News Reports

Slovenia Flag, WikiMedia Commons

Slovenia Flag, Source: WikiMedia Commons

On November 28, 2007, in a joint operation carried out by the organized crime unit of the Slovak police and Hungarian law enforcement authorities, two Hungarians and a Ukrainian citizen were apprehended at the Pribeník-Lácacséke border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary with 426.5 grams of uranium. (1,2,3) Media reports soon thereafter raised fears that the material could be used for either an improvised nuclear device or a radiological dispersal device (or “dirty bomb”). However, it was soon determined that the material was not highly enriched uranium (HEU)—necessary for a nuclear weapon,—nor was it radioactive—necessary for a radiological weapon. Instead, the material was most likely from nuclear reactor fuel rods, though details about the material remain unknown at present.

The known facts of the case are that the three individuals who were detained on the border were carrying two parcels that contained a total of 426.5 grams of a mixture of uranium-235 and uranium-238 in powder form. Radiation measurements taken by the Slovak police at a distance of 2 cm from the surface of the packages indicated radiation levels of 0.35 μSv/h, about ten times higher than natural background radiation, which would indicate that the material had not been irradiated (i.e. used in a reactor). The Slovak police sent the seized uranium mixture to the Slovak Technical University for further analysis. (4) Most media stories agree that the perpetrators—a 40-year old Ukrainian, a 49-year-old Hungarian residing in Ukraine, and a 51-year-old Hungarian—intended to sell the radioactive substance for $3,500 per gram or a grand total of approximately $1.5 million. (1,5,6) The Slovak police charged the trio with violating Paragraph 12 (Handling nuclear materials) of the Atomic Act of the Slovak Republic No.541/2004. If found guilty the individuals may face prison sentences of up to 15 years. (4,6)

Other aspects of the case are murkier. According to one version of the events, the three were arrested on their way to a scheduled rendezvous in Hungary, where they were supposed to meet with buyers to seal the deal. (1) However, according to another version of the story reported in the media, the Slovak police decided to intervene and arrest the suspects when the buyers did not show up for the meeting. (3,7) Supporting this latter version of events, senior Slovak police official Michal Kopčík told news media that:

“Even though the sale was not completed, we decided to arrest the sellers without the buyers, so that there would not be a big leak of radioactive material among the public. That is why we cannot say now where this stuff was heading.” (3)
Two of the perpetrators were arrested in Slovakia and one in Hungary. (8,9) With regard to the origins of the seized uranium, Mr. Kopčík alleged that “according to initial findings, the material originated in the former Soviet republics” without providing specific details. (7)

Recent Cooperation of Slovak Police with Neighboring Countries

According to Slovak police spokesperson Martin Korch, the Slovak and Hungarian police worked together on this case for several months prior to the commencement of the cross-border operation. (8,10,11) The investigation into the smuggling started in August, when Slovak police received information from the southern town of Filakovo that an unspecified radioactive material from Hungary had been offered for sale. (3,6) This prompted the Slovak police to alert their Hungarian counterparts.

Cooperation between Slovak officials and neighboring countries has been notable in several other recent trafficking cases. In October, the Slovak and Hungarian law enforcement authorities were informed that more than 1.5 kg of an unspecified radioactive material was buried near the northern Hungarian town of Nagyborzsony, but that report has not been confirmed since. (3,6) During a press briefing on November 29, 2007, Mr. Kopčík also recounted another recent case in which a Slovak national, identified only as Eugene K., allegedly brought a two-gram sample of uranium to Slovakia for potential buyers to verify. In mid-October he was arrested along with two other men while trying to peddle what turned out to be mildly radioactive mercury to undercover Czech police agents near the town of Uherské Hradiště in the southern part of the Czech Republic. (3,6,10) The arrest of Eugene K. and his accomplices represented the culmination of a six-month investigation by the Czech police and on October 25, 2007, the suspects were formally charged with taking part in a scam to sell purported radioactive material. The Czech law enforcement authorities explained the delay in apprehending the suspects by noting that they were trying to determine whether the culprits could really provide access to the radioactive materials they claimed to possess. (6)

Media Coverage of the Uranium Seizure

Almost from the outset the news reports of the uranium seizure in Slovakia were rife with factual inaccuracies and speculation, which was at least partly due to the incoherent manner in which the Slovak law enforcement authorities initially presented the relevant information. For instance, on November 28, 2007, the day of the seizure, the Slovak police stated that the radioactive material weighed 1 kg, but on November 29, 2007, this figure was corrected to just less than half a kilogram, with the most frequently cited weight estimate of 481.4 grams. (5,6,10) More importantly, groundless speculation was fueled by reports, citing Slovak investigators, suggesting to the international media that the material contained 98.6 percent uranium-235, an extremely high enrichment level (above typical weapons-grade HEU). (7,10,12) Indeed, the 98.6 percent figure clearly referred to confidence in the accuracy of the radiation detector measurement, not an enrichment level—a fact pointed out by Thomas B. Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. (13) The 98.6 figure can be seen from the photograph, top right, of the radiation detection device.

Statements by Slovak officials appeared to create more confusion about the facts in this case. Mr. Kopčík, for instance, is on record stating that the seized uranium was “enriched” to a sufficient level for it to be used in a radiological dispersal device (RDD). (5,8,12) However, uranium generally makes a poor material for a radiological dispersal device (RDD), regardless of the enrichment levels, particularly if the materials have not been irradiated. While irradiated, or “spent,” uranium fuel could be radioactive enough to be used in an RDD, it should be noted that there are other materials, such as cesium-137 or strontium-90, which are far more radioactive and would thus make a more effective RDD. Highly enriched uranium, on the other hand, is needed to create a nuclear explosive, and its trafficking would thus be of great concern. While the level of enrichment of the Slovak seizure has yet to be made public, the US Department of State stated in a press briefing on November 29, 2007, that the uranium seized by Slovak authorities was not weapons-grade. (16) Further communications between the Slovaks and the US Department of Energy also indicated that the material was not highly enriched. (17)

While the seizure of uranium in Slovakia was not a proliferation-significant incident, it nevertheless may indicate the continued existence of an underground market for nuclear and radioactive materials in Central and Eastern Europe. The involvement of Ukrainian and Hungarian individuals in a case in Slovakia, purportedly with buyers located in Hungary, may suggest the reemergence of the East-West trafficking route crisscrossing Central and Eastern Europe, which has lately been de-emphasized by some analysts more concerned with the North-South route that lies across Central Asia and the Caucasus. (18) Thus, obtaining more details about the facts of this case could be important indicators of potential nuclear trafficking pathways in the future. However, as noted above, it is important to keep in mind that the material involved could not have been used for any sort of terrorist device.


(1) “Enriched Uranium Seized in Slovakia Suitable for Dirty Bomb,” Deutsche Welle, November 29, 2007.
(2) Michael Logan, “Enriched uranium seized at the border,” The Budapest Times, December 3, 2007.
(3) “Half-kilo of uranium seized at Slovak border,” The Slovak Spectator, December 3, 2007, http://www.spectator.sk/articles/view/30057/half_kilo_of_uranium_seized_at_slovak_border.html.
(4) “Preliminary report on Uranium withhold on the Slovakian border,” Report received from Nuclear Regulatory Authority of the Slovak Republic via email, December 11, 2007.
(5) “‘Dirty bomb’ uranium seized in Slovakia: police,” Agence France Presse, November 29, 2007.
(6) “Slovak police say ‘dirty bomb’ uranium seized,” Agence France Presse, November 19, 2007.
(7) Mark Tran, “Three arrested in Slovakia ‘had enough uranium for dirty bomb,'” Guardian, November 29, 2007.
(8) “Police: Thwarted Sale Involved Uranium,” Associated Press, November 29, 2007.
(9) “Arrests in Slovak ‘nuclear plot,'” BBC News, November 28, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/7117758.stm.
(10) “Slovak Authorities Seize Radioactive Material,” Spiegel Online, November 29, 2007, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,520349,00.html.
(11) Ian Traynor, “Slovak police say three accused of trying to sell nuclear material,” Guardian, November 29, 2007, www.guardian.co.uk.
(12) “Gang arrested trying to sell enriched uranium,” November 29, 2007, Times Online, www.timesonline.co.uk.
(13) Dan Bilefsky and William J. Broad, “In Slovakia, Three Are Held in a Uranium Smuggling Case,” New York Times, November 30, 2007, www.nytimes.com.
(14) “Uranium Seized in Slovak Police Raid,” Javno News Agency (Croatia), November 29, 2007, www.javno.com.
(15) Paul Icamina, “Three Arrested For Alleged $1 Million Sale Of Radioactive Material,” All Headline News (AHN), November 28, 2007, http://www.allheadlinenews.com/articles/7009296769/.
(16) “Slovakia Uranium Seizure,” Taken Question, Office of the Spokesman, US Department of State, Daily Press Briefing, November 29, 2007.
(17) CNS personal communication with DOE officials, December 2, 2007.
(18) For instance, Lyudmila Zaitseva, one of the creators of the Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources (DSTO) at the Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies (IIS), points out that “the market has shifted to Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey.” See: Lisa Trei, “New database tracks illicit trafficking of nuclear material worldwide,” Stanford University News Service, March 5, 2002, http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/pr/02/database36.html.

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