December 10, 2012

Black market in nuclear material still active

By DESMOND BUTLER The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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This photo from the Georgia Interior Ministry shows bottles containing yellowcake uranium, which police said was seized in Samtredia, Georgia, on April 5. The yellowcake can be enriched into bomb-grade material.

The Associated Press

Sumbat Tonoyan
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Sumbat Tonoyan

Additional Photos Below


The two smugglers in a 2010 case were Sumbat Tonoyan, a dairy farmer who went bankrupt, and Hrant Ohanian, a former physicist at a nuclear research facility in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. They were interviewed at a prison about 25 miles outside Tbilisi, where they are serving sentences of 13 and 14 years.

In separate interviews, each man blamed the other for the idea of smuggling uranium, and talked of financial hardship. Ohanian said his daughter needed urgent medical care that he couldn't afford, and Tonoyan said a bank had seized his house after his dairy factory collapsed.

"I didn't have a job and I couldn't pay the bank," he said in Russian through an interpreter.

The men also claimed they believed the material they were selling was to be used for scientific work, not nefarious purposes. Ohanian said a Georgian contact, who was also arrested, told him relations with Moscow were so bad that Georgian scientists could not get the uranium they needed from Russia on the open market.

"I feel guilty because I behaved like an idiot," he said. "I should have known and I would never do something like this again."

-- The Associated Press

Georgian officials say the radioactive material in the five new cases this year all transited through Abkhazia, which borders on Russia and has Russian troops stationed on its territory.

Abkhazia's foreign ministry said it has no information about the Georgian allegations and would not comment, but in the past it has denied Georgian allegations.

Russia maintains that it has secured its radioactive material -- including bomb-grade uranium and plutonium -- and that Georgia has exaggerated the risk because of political tension with Moscow. But while the vast majority of the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal and radioactive material has been secured, U.S. officials say that some material in the region remains loose.

"Without a doubt, we are aware and have been over the last several years that not all nuclear material is accounted for," says Simon Limage, deputy assistant secretary for non-proliferation programs at the U.S. State Department. "It is true that a portion that we are concerned about continues to be outside of regulatory control."

U.S. efforts to prevent smuggling have prioritized bomb-grade material because of the potential that a nuclear bomb could flatten a U.S. city. But security officials say an attack with a dirty bomb -- explosives packed with radioactive material -- would be easier for a terrorist to pull off. And terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, have sought the material to do so. A study by the National Defense University found that the economic impact from a dirty bomb attack of a sufficient scale on a city center could exceed that of the September 11, 2011, attacks on New York and Washington.


The U.S. government has been assisting about a dozen countries believed to be vulnerable to nuclear smuggling, including Georgia, to set up teams that combine intelligence with police undercover work. Limage says Georgia's team is a model for the other countries the U.S. is supporting.

On Jan. 6, police arrested a man in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and seized 36 vials with cesium-135, a radioactive isotope that is hard to use for a weapon. The man said he had obtained the material in Abkhazia.

In April, Georgian authorities arrested a group of smugglers from Abkhazia bringing in three glass containers with about 2.2 pounds of yellowcake uranium, a lightly processed substance that can be enriched into bomb-grade material.

"At first we thought that this was coincidence," said Archil Pavlenishvili, chief investigator of Georgia's anti-smuggling team. "But since all of these cases were connected with Abkhazia, it suggests that the stuff was stolen recently from one particular place. But we have no idea where."

Days later, more evidence turned up when Turkish media reported the arrest of three Turkish men with a radioactive substance in the capital, Ankara. Police seized 2.2 pounds of cesium-135, the same material seized in January in Tbilisi.


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Additional Photos

Hrant Ohanian
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Hrant Ohanian


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