Going Underground: The Radioactive Market is Resurging


Since ‘R’ for ‘radiological’ was added to the unholy trinity of nuclear-biological-chemical weapons to create the acronym CBRN, smuggling of radioisotopes has been consistently placed high on the list of terrorist threats. The possibility that a well-funded group could acquire the materials to fashion a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or otherwise cause a radioactive dispersal event (RDE) has featured in many reports from government departments, institutes and expert bodies.

While radioisotopes in civilian use could be purloined or acquired through criminal gangs, the fabrication and emplacement of a RDD has long been deemed too risky to complete even for a suicide bombing mission. Therefore, there are few examples of RDDs.

But, coinciding with the rise of ISIS, radiological smuggling has resurged. On 18 March, police detained four men in the Turkish capital Ankara for possession of californium, a radioisotope produced in US and Russian laboratories and nuclear reactors. With a half-life of 2.6 years, it is used mainly in nuclear warheads, nuclear power plants, and the oil and mining industries, and is worth $4 million per gram. The 1kg 441 g found in the suspects’ vehicle was intended for sale to unnamed buyers for $72 million.

Officers screen passengers in Interpol’s Mind/Find database. ©INTERPOL

Other incidents may involve accidental theft. In December 2013, an armed gang stole a truck being hauled to a waste facility by Mexican authorities, who had parked it a petrol station. It was filled with obsolete medical equipment containing cobalt-60 – which was found about a kilometre from the truck and its empty protective lead container somewhere near Mexico City. Radioactivity was detected in the nearby town of Hueypoxtla.

Radioisotopes for Bombs

The components for a RDD are the very same isotopes used to save, not take lives are used in cancer radiotherapy as well as in industry and mining. Cesium-137 (half-life, 30 years) and cobalt-60 (5.2 years) for medicine are among the most commonly used – produced in nuclear reactors. They are tissue-penetrating gamma emitters, so if not shielded, handling and moving even small amounts would cause injury or death. As civilian-use radioisotopes they are installed, and discarded, in thousands of sites in more than 150 countries. Many are poorly secured and vulnerable to theft or loss.

While many smuggling cases involve very small, overpriced amounts of radioisotope, any explosive dispersal of such materials would necessitate decontamination and prolonged restricted access to affected premises and surrounding areas.

Georgia: Uranium Smuggling

In just the first half of 2016 three separate attempts to smuggle uranium-238, a small amount of uranium-235 (famously used in nuclear weapons), and cesium-137 – believed to be destined for selling on in Turkey – were intercepted by Georgian police. One case, in April 2016, involved three Armenians and three Georgians who attempted to sell uranium-238 for $200 million in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. An earlier case, in January 2016 involved cesium-137; the sellers had pocketed $100,000 at the time of their arrest. Some containers had Russian-language markings.

The Georgian Intelligence Service tracked down at attempt to sell uranium 238 for $200 million in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. An earlier attempt in January involved cesium 137, which smugglers tried to sell for $100,000. ©Georgian Intelligence Service

Two earlier seizures of uranium in 2010 involved a businessman and a physicist from Armenia who smuggled it on a train from Yerevan to Tbilisi. The dealers were trying to sell it inside Georgian territory. It was enriched to 89.4% – weapons-grade.

Sources of Soviet-era nuclear fuel are said to be still unaccounted for in parts of Russia and FSU nations like Georgia, which forms a pathway from Europe to the Middle East, where many are desperate to make money, and which has a history of illicit trafficking in other goods.

In 2006, a resident of Russia’s North Ossetia region was arrested for trying to sell weapons-grade uranium for $1 million to agents he thought were radical Islamists. Georgia lies on a smuggling route that runs from Russia down through the Caucasus to Iran, Turkey and territory formerly occupied by Daesh.

The Moldovan Connection

In October 2015 the Associated Press unearthed four examples over the previous five years of “a thriving black market in nuclear materials” in Moldova. These included a sting where an arms smuggler tried to sell to a ‘client’ – who turned out to be an informant – cesium-137, “for 2.5 million euros… enough to contaminate several city blocks.” Once money changed hands in the capital Chisinau, the seller was apprehended.

The FBI helped Moldovan authorities three times from 2010 to 2015 to thwart potential smuggling of nuclear and radioactive material. ©CNN

It is not clear how much of the materials involved in the reported cases, and their vendors, remain at large. But efforts are under way to curb the traffic. According to Georgiy Nabaxtiani of Georgia’s Agency of Nuclear and Radiation Safety, “We now have much stricter regulations—our borders are very well controlled, we scan both pedestrians and vehicles for radiation.”

It is also questionable how profitable nuclear smuggling really is. According to Robert Kelly of the SIPRI Nuclear Weapons Project, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme, to make $200 million – based on real prices – Georgian dealers would have to sell 3,700 tons of uranium. That said, only 8 kg of weapons-grade U-235 is needed for an atomic bomb. And while uranium-238 is useless for nuclear weapons and has low radioactivity, the liability surrounding its dispersal – as with all other radioisotope contamination, with varied half-lives – would still necessitate a lengthy RDE response and remediation.

The featured image above is of Interpol officers as they screen cargo for nuclear or other radioactive material using a mobile detector.©INTERPOL

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Andy Oppenheimer AIExpE MIABTI is Editor-in-Chief of CBNW (Chemical, Biological & Nuclear Warfare) and CBNW Xplosive journals, a consultant in CBRNE and counter-terrorism, and author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets (Irish Academic Press, 2008).