Highly enriched uranium that could be used to make a nuclear bomb is on sale on the black market along the fringes of the former Soviet Union, according to evidence emerging from a secret trial in Georgia.
Two Armenians, a businessman and a physicist, have pleaded guilty to smuggling highly enriched uranium (HEU) into Georgia in March, stashing it in a lead-lined package on a train from Yerevan to Tbilisi.
Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, informed other heads of state of the sting operation at a nuclear summit in Washington in April, but no details about the case have been made public until now. The trial has been conducted behind closed doors to protect the operational secrecy of Georgia's counter-proliferation unit, officials said. But investigators have given the Guardian an exclusive first-hand account of the case.
It reveals that the critical ingredient for making a nuclear warhead is available on the black market and is reasonably easy to smuggle past a ring of expensive US-funded radiation sensors along the borders of the former Soviet Union. What is not clear is how much nuclear material is in circulation and whether any has already been bought by extremist groups.
The US has made the prevention of nuclear terrorism its national security priority. Barack Obama persuaded 50 world leaders at the April summit to pledge to secure all vulnerable nuclear material within four years.
Billions of dollars have been spent upgrading security at nuclear sites around the globe, particularly in Russia, which has an estimated 700 tonnes of HEU in hundreds of facilities. But it is unclear how much has already been stolen. “The question is: of what iceberg are we seeing the tip?” said Matthew Bunn, a former White House science adviser, who compiles an annual assessment of the nuclear terrorism threat titled Securing the Bomb.
The uranium sample that Sumbat Tonoyan and Hrant Ohanyan were peddling is thought to have been stolen several years ago. US tests have confirmed it is 89.4% enriched, usable in a nuclear warhead. The Armenians only had 18 grams, but had been told by their supplier in Armenia that much more was available. They smuggled it into Georgia by train in a cigarette box lined with lead to fool radiation sensors at the border.
Tonoyan, a 63-year-old who once ran a successful dairy business but gambled away his fortune, and Ohanyan, a 59-year-old scientist at the Yerevan Institute of Physics, had arranged to meet their buyer in a hotel in the Georgian capital on March 11. They thought they were selling their 18 gram sample to a representative of an Islamist group as a precursor to a bigger consignment. But the buyer was an undercover police officer. It is the third time in seven years HEU has been intercepted in Georgia. GNS