Police officers in Georgia said yesterday that four men had been arrested trying to sell a large quantity of enriched uranium, raising the fear that it may have been destined for a terrorist group or country classified by the US as a rogue state.
Although there has been an increased number of cases of smuggling nuclear material since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is rare for uranium of this quality and quantity of to appear on the black market.
The men were arrested by local anti-terrorist police last Wednesday morning in a hotel room in the Black Sea port of Batumi, apparently finalizing plans for selling the weapons-grade uranium.
About 1.7kg of what is believed to be uranium-235 stood inside a large glass jar, wrapped in a plastic bag, on the hotel room floor. It is believed to have been heading for Turkey, which is often used as a transit point. The final destination is not known.
The US says that the countries seeking uranium on the black market include North Korea and Iran. Iraq is not thought to be among the buyers in this instance, since it knows how to enrich uranium.
There is no independent confirmation of the US claim that North Korea and Iraq have a nuclear capability.
The US also lists 12 terrorist groups which it claims have tried to buy nuclear material, including that led by Osama bin Laden and the Japanese sect responsible for the Tokyo underground poisoning.
Rizor Sakvarelidze, head of the anti-terrorist unit of the Georgian autonomous region of Adzharia, said: "We don't have any protective clothing, so we had to perform the arrest and the seizure of the material with our bare hands."
The three unemployed men and a captain in the Georgian army were hoping to be paid $80,000 (£56,300) a kilogram.
Officials believe that the haul may have been stolen from a Russian nuclear submarine. It is being analyzed in Tblisi, and the results are expected to give a clearer idea of its origin.
Hundreds of attempts to smuggle radioactive material out of Russia are made every year, but most cases involve relatively low-risk strontium isotopes in materials stolen from hospitals or the mining industry. These isotopes do not have nuclear bomb making potential.
"Instances of uranium being stolen are much rarer; especially highly enriched uranium," Igor Kudrik, of the nuclear watchdog Bellona, said. "This kind of enriched uranium could be used to make a so-called 'dirty' nuclear bomb; not a sophisticated weapon, but powerful enough to wipe out a city."
The 1.7kg would not have been enough to manufacture a whole bomb: at least twice as much would be needed.
"But this is still a significant amount, and it is an extremely worrying case," Mr Kudrik said. "The know-how required to turn this material into a bomb is not that difficult. Anyone with a good education in physics should be able to do it."
Ivan Safanchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information, said: "If this material does turn out, after analysis, really to have been highly enriched uranium, then it is very scary news, because the greatest difficulty rogue states or terrorists face if they want to make a nuclear bomb is finding weapons-grade plutonium [an alternative] available on the black market.
"It is extremely unusual for highly enriched uranium to be found on sale."
David Kyd, chief spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body based in Vienna, said that although lots of cases of smuggling appeared in the press, most of it was of small quantities and not sufficiently enriched for making nuclear weapons.
He said most countries and terrorist groups were wary of buying on the black market because of stings by intelligence groups and criminal gangs.
Enriched uranium is used as fuel on Russian nuclear submarines and the substance on sale could have been stolen from the base of the northern fleet near the Arctic port of Murmansk.
In 1993, nuclear fuel rods thought to contain uranium-235 were stolen from a storage depot in Murmansk by two officers who simply walked past the old woman on duty.
Since then a series of American-funded programs have radically improved security at most of Russia's nuclear stores."If such programs continue, then the nuclear materials will be much more secure," Mr Kudrik said.
"But you still have to consider the current social problems in Russia. If the person who is supposed to be guarding these materials is unable to live on his salary, then no amount of sophisticated, hi-tech security equipment is going to offer any protection against theft."
Terror trail uncovered
A lot of uranium was smuggled in the mid-90s and there has been another surge in the past two years:
French police find five grams of enriched uranium in the possession of a French swindler in Paris. A man is arrested in Germany for allegedly stealing contaminated plutonium
20 cases of illegal trafficking in radioactive materials, with thefts in Germany, Romania, South Africa and Mexico.
Detectives in Colombia seize £1m-worth of enriched uranium from an animal feed salesman. 920 grams of enriched uranium found in Georgia
July 1995-April 2000
13 seizures in western Europe and 41 along southern routes through Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Middle East.
May 1991-June 1995
53 seizures in western Europe and 11 along the southern routes.
Colombian arrested in Frankfurt traveling from Moscow with plutonium in his suitcase. Turned out to be a sting by German intelligence.
Sources including the World Today, published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001