The arrests of three men who allegedly tried to sell contraband uranium for $1 million show how a shadowy black market for nuclear components has survived despite tightened security at nuclear facilities worldwide, experts said Thursday.
This image provided by the Slovak police on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007 show two shells containing 481.4 grams of enriched uranium powder seized by Slovak Police in east Slovakia on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007. [Agencies]
Slovak police said the material, believed to have originated in the former Soviet Union, was highly dangerous and could have been used in a radiological "dirty bomb" or other terrorist weapon.
UN and independent experts suggested the uranium may not have been anywhere near that lethal. But officials tracking the illicit global trade in radioactive materials said the arrests underscored the risk of nuclear substances falling into terrorist hands.
Should that happen, "the consequences would be so catastrophic, the world would be a different place the next day," said Richard Hoskins, who supervises a database of stolen, missing, smuggled or unauthorized radioactive materials for the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In 2006 alone, the UN nuclear watchdog registered 252 reported cases — a 385 percent increase since 2002.
Hoskins cautioned that the spike probably was due at least in part to better reporting and improved law enforcement efforts. Of the 252 cases, about 85 involved thefts or losses, and not all the material was suitable for use in a weapon, he told The Associated Press.
But small amounts can add up, and this week's arrests heightened long-standing concerns that Eastern Europe is serving as a source of radioactive material for terrorists and criminals.
The suspects, two Hungarians and a Ukrainian who were arrested Wednesday in eastern Slovakia and Hungary, were trying to sell about a pound of uranium in powder form, said First Police Vice President Michal Kopcik.
"It was possible to use it in various ways for terrorist attacks," he said.
Kopcik said investigators believed the uranium was suitable for a "dirty bomb," which would use conventional explosives to spread radioactive material across an urban area.
He said the uranium had been stashed in lead containers, and that investigators determined it contained 98.6 percent uranium-235. Uranium is considered weapons-grade if it contains at least 85 percent uranium-235.
But nuclear experts who were shown police photographs of radioactivity readings contended the material was probably not as dangerous as authorities believe.
They said the police confused a scientific reading of the material as dealing with its "concentration" of uranium-235, when in fact it was just a "confidence" level of the machine to give an accurate reading. They suggested it may even have been natural uranium — a common and non-lethal element.