Police: Seized uranium enough for ‘dirty bomb’ 3 allegedly sought to sell material, which apparently came from ex-USSR
(AP) BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Slovak police said Thursday they have identified as uranium the 2.2 pounds of radioactive material seized from three suspects who allegedly tried to sell it for $1 million.
Police spokesman Martin Korch could not say whether the seized material had been enriched to weapons-grade.
“I can confirm that it was uranium-235 and uranium-238,” he told The Associated Press.
Slovak and Hungarian officials were to hold a news conference later in the day
Authorities said Wednesday they confiscated the uranium during the arrests of two suspects in eastern Slovakia and a third in Hungary. It remained unclear to whom the suspects were trying to peddle the material.
Uranium is considered enriched if it contains more than 20 percent uranium-235, the fissile form of the element. It is considered weapons-grade if it contains at least 85 percent uranium-235. Natural uranium contains less than 1 percent of the fissile isotope, and uranium-238 is a lower grade form of the element.
‘Dirty bomb’ fears
The arrests heightened concerns that Eastern Europe could be a source of radioactive material for a so-called “dirty bomb,” which would use conventional explosives to scatter radioactive debris.
Eastern Slovakia’s border with Ukraine is the European Union’s easternmost frontier, and authorities have spent millions tightening security in the past few years, fearing terrorists or organized crime syndicates could smuggle weapons, explosives and other contraband into the EU.
In 2003, police in the Czech Republic, which borders Slovakia, arrested two Slovaks in a sting operation in the city of Brno after they allegedly sold undercover officers natural depleted uranium for $715,000.
Slovak and Hungarian police worked together on the case for several months, Korch said. He would not say how long the suspects were under surveillance, or detail how they were arrested and to whom they were trying to sell the material.
Hungary’s National Bureau of Investigation had no immediate comment.
Erich Tomas, a spokesman for the Slovak Interior Ministry, and the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Bratislava, said they also had no comment.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which closely tracks reports of illicit trafficking in radioactive materials, said Thursday it was trying to contact Slovak and Hungarian authorities for more information.
Huge increase in stolen materials
Richard Hoskins, the IAEA official who administers the database, said that last year alone the U.N. nuclear watchdog registered 252 reported cases of radioactive materials that were stolen, missing, smuggled or in the possession of unauthorized individuals — a 385 percent increase since 2002.
But 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 said.
Even so, “there are far too many incidents of material not being properly controlled,” Hoskins told AP in a telephone interview. “If we can do a better job, we can help keep these materials from falling into terrorist hands.”
Focus on former Soviet Union
Concerns about nuclear smuggling have generally been focused on Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union, where security at nuclear-related industries deteriorated after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization dedicated to reducing the global threat from nuclear weapons, said in a report last year that Russia remains the prime country of concern for contraband nuclear material.
In 2006, Georgian agents working with CIA officials set up a sting that led to the arrest of a Russian citizen who tried to sell a small amount of weapons-grade uranium that he had in a plastic bag in his jacket pocket.
In 1997, seven men who officials said planned to smuggle 11 pounds of enriched uranium to Pakistan or China were arrested in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. That uranium reportedly had been stolen from a plant in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
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