Uranium Smuggling Case: Nuclear Materials Still on the Loose

Elena Sokova
William Potter
Cristina Chuen
January 26, 2007

On January 25, 2007, a story about the seizure of 100 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Georgia hit the media. The actual incident took place nearly a year ago. In February 2006, some brief media reports referred to a seizure of 80 grams of enriched uranium in Georgia involving a Russian national. The reports were dismissed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. No additional information was made public in the ensuing year.

The information about the case released more recently indicates that the material involved is highly enriched uranium. According to the New York Times, the analysis of the material carried out by the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory determined that the U-235 content of the material was 89.451 percent. (1) This level of enrichmentnearly 90-percent enriched U-235makes it ideal material for the construction of a nuclear weapon. Uranium enriched to at least 90 percent U-235 is considered weapons-grade. In skilled hands, as little as 25 kilograms (kg) of this material is needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Many nuclear scientists and nonproliferation experts acknowledge that terrorist organizations, if they obtain HEU, could fabricate such a crude device without state assistance. (2) In addition to nuclear weapons, HEU is used in many civilian applications, including as nuclear fuel for research reactors and naval propulsion, as well as in the production of medical isotopes. This material is available in more than 40 countries around the world. (For more information on the risk of nuclear terrorism and HEU, see the Civilian HEU Reduction and Elimination Resource Collection.)

According to the New York Times report, the HEU seizure in Georgia was the result of a sting operation by the Georgian secret services, who became aware of a Russian national from Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia (a region of the Russian Federation that borders South Ossetia, a separatist region in Georgia), looking for a buyer for 2-3 kg of enriched uranium. A Turkish-speaking Georgian undercover agent, posing as the representative of a Muslim man from a “serious organization,” was able to convince the would-be seller to bring a sample of the material to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Oleg Khintsagov, the main perpetrator, and three accomplices from Georgia were arrested with 100 grams of the material on February 1, 2006. (3)

In seeking the origin of the material, Georgian authorities turned to the United States and Russia for assistance. Both countries were provided small samples of the material for analysis. However, according to news reports, Russian experts were not able to establish the origin of the material.

The Georgian authorities stated that they did not receive adequate assistance from Russia in investigating this incident, noting that cooperation between the two countries on an earlier case involving HEU had been much better. In the earlier case, which occurred in 2003, 170 grams of HEU were seized on the border between Georgia and Armenia. The smuggler arrested with the material was an Armenian national, who, as was reported in 2003, obtained the material in question in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, the same city and region involved in the 2006 case. (4) According to the January 25, 2007 report by the New York Times, Georgian authorities have stated that the material seized in 2003 came from Novosibirsk, Russia. (The Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant, which manufactures nuclear fuel for various purposes, including HEU fuel for research and other reactors, is located in Novosibirsk. Several cases of loss and theft of nuclear material from the Novosibirsk Plant in the 1990s are recorded in the Nuclear Threat Initiative Trafficking Resource Collection.)

Additional HEU trafficking cases in Georgia generally have involved seizures of small quantities of material with far lower levels of enrichment, though still above the 20-percent cut-off that distinguishes highly enriched uranium from low-enriched uranium. In 2005, Georgian authorities reported four cases of enriched uranium that had been smuggled into the country in the past few years, including through South Ossetia. There is also one significant earlier trafficking case in the country that involved about 2 kg of HEU that went missing from the I.N. Vekua Physics and Technology Institute located in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, a separatist region in Georgia. A physical inventory conducted in 1997 recorded 2 kg of 90 percent HEU missing from the site after several years of armed conflict in the region. The whereabouts of that material remains unknown to this day. This case has never been reported by Georgian authorities to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which keeps an official record of all nuclear and radioactive material trafficking cases.

For many years, nonproliferation experts have tried to direct more attention to separatist regions, where the smuggling of arms and narcotics is widespread, as possible smuggling routes for WMD materials. The newly released information suggests that this concern is well-founded. Although it is unclear whether the material indeed came from a Russian facility and when it was originally obtained, the incident certainly indicates that the control of nuclear materials in the region remains inadequate.

So far the greatest enigma is the fate of the approximately 2 kg of HEU that the perpetrator allegedly kept hidden in Vladikavkaz. Although efforts to recover it should have been at the top of the agenda of all countries involved, it is unclear what, if any, action was taken.

The poor state of cooperation between Georgia, Russia, and the United States on the latest smuggling incident results in part from the continuing crisis in Georgian-Russian relations. Seen from the Georgian perspective, the incident demonstrates the need to urgently reintegrate the breakaway region of South Ossetia into Georgia. Russians, however, consider the fact that the incident was publicized a year after it actually occurred as proof that Georgian leaders are using it as political leverage. Regardless of the merits of each claim, the atmosphere of mistrust is bound to negatively affect the investigation.

Furthermore, despite the existence for over one decade of various cooperative agreements between the United State and Russia to counter nuclear terrorism, including the most recent Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism at the 2006 G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, little intelligence sharing has occurred relating to illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. If Moscow and Washington are serious about fighting nuclear terror, cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies on nuclear smuggling cases is essential.

Notes

(1) Lawrence Scott Sheets and William J. Broad, “Smuggler’s Plot Highlights Fear over Uranium,” The New York Times, 25 January 2007.
(2) Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, “Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism,” Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002, pp. 40, 45.
(3)¬†Lawrence Scott Sheets and William J. Broad, “Smuggler’s Plot Highlights Fear over Uranium,”¬†The New York Times, 25 January 2007.
(4) “Gruzinskiye pogranichniki zaderzhali armyanina s poroshkom urana” (Georgian border guards arrest Armenian with uranium powder), Lenta.ru, 28 June 2003; Integrum Techno database, http://afnet.integrum.ru.

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