Investigators following up on a nuclear sting in Eastern Europe suspect that a crime syndicate was trying to sell weapons-grade uranium to buyers in North Africa.
Officials in Moldova, a former Soviet republic, said 1kg of highly enriched uranium remains in criminal hands and was likely in another country.
Though that is a fraction of what is needed for a bomb, the investigation has provided fresh evidence of a black market in nuclear material likely taken from poorly secured stockpiles from the former Soviet Union.
US authorities have been aiding the Moldovans in the international search for a Russian believed to be the ringleader of the smuggling operation. They also are searching for a North African man who they believe attempted to buy the uranium in Moldova before fleeing the country.
Neither suspect has been publicly identified. The North Africa link, though, has worried officials because terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operate in the region. The concern is raised in a report prepared by the staff of Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Should the existence of a legitimate buyer (or middleman) from a region with a history of terror cells be confirmed, then the case would be substantially more alarming than other recent fissile material interdictions, where official agents were the sole potential buyer,” said the report, which was obtained ahead of its release yesterday.
The Associated Press has learned details of the investigation from the report and from US, UN and Moldovan officials. Some of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
Moldovan investigators, who had been trained by US specialists, set up a sting in June after learning of the ring operating out of Moldova’s separatist Trans--Dniester region. Undercover police bought the small quantity, pre-empting the North African buyer.
They arrested six people and seized 4.4g of uranium that had been offered as a sample at a price of 420,000 euros (US$600,000). The sellers claimed to have 9kg more as well as a quantity of plutonium, according to Lugar’s report. The group wanted 23 million euros for the larger quantity of uranium, which would have been about a third of the material necessary to build a crude nuclear weapon.
It is not known whether the group had access to that much uranium. However, Moldovan prosecutors, who have interrogated the arrested suspects extensively, say they believe that the group still has at least a smaller quantity.
According to US and UN officials, the sample of uranium oxide was traced to specific Russian enrichment facilities and was matched later with at least one earlier seizure of uranium. Nuclear forensic experts can analyze chemical traits of uranium and other radioactive material that can provide a kind of nuclear fingerprint that can be traced to known stocks.
According to Olli Heinonen, a former investigator at the International Atomic Energy Agency, a small quantity of uranium oxide enriched to bomb-grade level could have come from Russian civilian nuclear stocks used in research reactors. However, if the smugglers indeed have the larger quantity they were offering, it would signal that criminals had gained access to military stocks.