NBC Weapons: More Uranium Hits The Black Market



August 27, 2010: In Moldova, two former policemen and a another man were arrested when they sought to sell two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of uranium-238. The three were caught in a police sting when word got out that the uranium was on the market for over a million dollars a kilogram. This is a form of uranium used to create plutonium in a nuclear reactor. Uranium-238 cannot be used, by itself, to form the explosive component of a nuclear bomb, or fuel a nuclear reactor. The uranium-238 is valuable, as a component of nuclear weapons, and as a source of plutonium. The uranium-238 apparently showed up in Moldova because of what is going on in Moldova's eastern neighbor, a breakaway portion of Moldova called Transdniestr. Earlier this year, Moldova asked the Russian government to withdraw all Russian troops and remaining ammunition stocks from Transdniestr (a Russian supported statelet containing mostly Russians, while Moldovans are mostly ethnic Romanians). The Moldovan government argued that the withdrawal would help resolve the lingering conflict over Transdniestr. Russia, on its part, is urging Moldova to give Transdniestr a special political status. All this is the result of Russia opposing any Moldovan move to join NATO or establishing closer links with Romania. Russia has stated that once the Transdniestr conflict is resolved Moldova must stay neutral. The current Moldovan government was elected on a pro-Western, pro-European Union platform. Transdniestr survives on criminal activity, including weapons smuggling.

There have been several cases of nuclear material smuggling in Eastern Europe. Last year, Ukrainian police arrested three men trying to sell nearly four kilograms (eight pounds) of plutonium, for $10 million. It turned out that they did not have plutonium, but the less radioactive (and not suitable for nuclear weapons) Americium (which could be used for a dirty bomb). The three arrested (a politician and two businessmen from Western Ukraine) had obtained the radioactive material (which was originally produced inside Russia) from someone outside Ukraine.

This incident is typical of dozens that have gone down since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Most of the nuclear material being peddled is not weapons grade. But since 1993, there have been over two dozen instances of smugglers caught with weapons grade uranium or plutonium. Thefts of non-weapons grade material were reported in many countries around the world since the end of the Cold War. What's amazing is that Islamic terrorists have not yet obtained any of this stuff and used it to set off a "dirty bomb" (explosives surrounded by radioactive material, that makes the blast area radioactive).

Since the end of the Cold War, and the dismantling of over 20,000 nuclear weapons, there is over three tons of additional nuclear fuel sitting around. The stuff cannot be destroyed and remains radioactive for thousands of years. Several terrorist organizations and nations are known to be in the market for this weapons grade nuclear material, and don't care what the source is. Criminal organizations are active in trying to develop the trade. Only an enormous amount of police and intelligence work prevents a more active illegal trade in nuclear material.

But there is a hundred times more, less radioactive, material around. This stuff is used in hospitals and for some manufacturing or food processing work. This is what can be used for dirty bombs. There is a black market for this material as well, but no terrorists have, so far, gotten some and used it.




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