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Plot to sell uranium foiled

world Updated: Apr 14, 2010 23:17 IST
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Georgian security forces have foiled a criminal plot to sell weapons-grade uranium in the black market, the country’s president told a gathering of world leaders on Tuesday.

The revelation brought a sense of urgency to the Washington summit on nuclear security, where Barack Obama called on the rest of the world “not simply to talk, but to act” to destroy vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear material, or to safeguard them against theft by terrorists.

The US president reminded leaders and ministers from 46 other nations that the world’s stores of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) — both of which can be used in the core of a nuclear weapon — were scattered around more than 40 countries. He pointed out that it only took a lump of plutonium the size of an apple to make a warhead.

“Terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeed, they would surely use it,” Obama said. “Were they to do so, it would be a catastrophe for the world.”

Last night, French president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that leaders of nations that transfer nuclear material to terrorist groups should face trial in an international court under UN authority.

Pakistan came under particular scrutiny in Washington because of widespread fears that extremists could steal a weapon from its nuclear arsenal, and because of its opposition to a treaty that would ban the production of fissile material. But the revelation from Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili of a nuclear smuggling case served as a reminder that there is still considerable uncertainty about whether the weapons and fissile material left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed have been fully accounted for.

Georgian sources said the HEU was intercepted in a sting operation carried out by the Tbilisi authorities in March. They said the uranium was more than 70 per cent enriched. The exact analysis is expected in a few days, but it appears to have been pure enough to use in a crude nuclear weapon.

The amount seized was small, but Georgian officials said the gang was offering the HEU as a sample of a bigger quantity available for purchase.

The officials would not comment on the nationality of the gang. “The Georgian ministry of interior has foiled eight attempts of illicit trafficking of enriched uranium during the last 10 years, including several cases of weapons-grade enrichment. Criminals associated with these attempts have been detained,” the Georgian president told the summit. “The most recent case of illicit trafficking was the attempted sale of highly enriched uranium in March of this year.”