Information on Nuclear Smuggling Incidents

Luch Scientific Production Association (Russia), 1992

This incident involved a chemical engineer and long-time employee of the State Research Institute, Scientific Production Association (also known as Luch) which is located 22 miles from Moscow.4 Beginning in May 1992, over a 5-month period, the individual smuggled out of the institute small quantities of highly enriched uranium totaling 1.5 kilograms. In October 1992, the engineer was arrested because police suspected him of stealing equipment from the Luch facility. Once in custody, the police discovered the nuclear material that he had stolen. The individual did not have a specific buyer in mind, but was trying to determine if there was a market for the stolen nuclear material. He was tried before a Russian court and received 3 years’ probation.

Vilnius, Lithuania, 1993

In May 1993, Lithuanian authorities recovered 4.4 tons of beryllium in a smuggling investigation. Beryllium is a metal that is used in the production of, among other things, x-ray tubes, lasers, computers, aircraft parts, nuclear reactors, and nuclear weapons. When Lithuanian authorities seized the material, they discovered that some of the beryllium (141 kilograms) was contaminated with approximately 0.1 kilogram of highly enriched uranium. There was no evidence that the individuals involved were aware that the beryllium contained the enriched uranium. Some reports indicated that the beryllium originated at the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering in Russia. This institute is involved in the research and development of nuclear power reactors and employs about 5,000 people and possesses several tons of weapons-usable material.

Murmansk, Russia, 1993

In July 1993, two Russian naval enlisted personnel stole two fresh fuel rods from a storage facility in Murmansk, Russia. These rods were for Russian naval propulsion reactors that power submarines and contained 36-percent enriched uranium. (Uranium enriched at 20 percent or greater is considered to be weapons usable material.) The amount of material totaled about 1.8 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. Russian security officers discovered the missing material and apprehended the individuals before the material left the Murmansk area. One of the individuals arrested was a guard at the facility and was suspected by authorities after the material was missing. The two enlisted personnel who were caught implicated two Russian naval officers in the plan. However, at the ensuing trial only the two enlisted personnel were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of 4 and 5 years.

Murmansk, Russia, 1993

In November 1993, approximately 4.5 kilograms of 20-percent enriched uranium, intended for use in submarine propulsion reactors, was stolen from a fuel storage facility in the Sevmorput shipyard near Murmansk, Russia. Three individuals were arrested in connection with the theft, including two naval officers. The group stored the fuel rods in a garage for several months while they were looking for a prospective buyer. The three individuals were arrested and two of the men received 3-½-year sentences while the third person was acquitted.

St. Petersburg, Russia, 1994

In March 1994, three men were arrested in St. Petersburg, Russia for trying to sell approximately 3 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent. The material was allegedly smuggled from the Elektrostal Production Association which is located in the Moscow suburbs. The facility produces low-enriched uranium for commercial nuclear power reactors and also has the capacity to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear powered icebreakers and submarines. The material was smuggled out of the facility and approximately 500 grams of the material were found inside a glass jar in a refrigerator in one of individual’s homes.

Tengen, Germany, 1994

In May 1994, German police discovered a lead container containing 0.006 kilograms of highly concentrated plutonium-239 in the home of a German citizen. The material found in the container was a mixture of many components, including aluminum, silicon, mercury, zirconium, broken glass, and brush bristles as well as the plutonium. The presence of mercury in the mixture suggests that the material may have been used as part of a red mercury scam. 5 In November 1995, the German national was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for violating arms control laws. The sentence was added onto a 3-year term he was already serving time for counterfeiting.

Landshut, Germany, 1994

In June 1994, less than 0.001 kilogram of highly enriched uranium was recovered in Landshut, Germany, a city near Munich. This material, along with 120 low enriched uranium fuel pellets, was found as a result of a police undercover operation. The material was seized in an undercover police operation. Three individuals apprehended were citizens of the Slovak Republic and one was a resident of Germany. A German court sentenced several of the individuals to probationary terms but one of the group’s leaders was sentenced to 2 years in prison.

Munich, Germany, 1994

In 1994, undercover German police acting as prospective buyers intercepted approximately 0.4 kilograms of plutonium at the Munich Airport. It is believed that the material originated in Russia’s Institute of Physics and Power Engineering. The institute, which is operated by Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, is involved in the research and development of nuclear power reactors and possesses several tons of weapons-usable material. The material was in a suitcase that had arrived on a flight from Moscow. The individuals involved in the smuggling case were from Colombia and Spain. A German court sentenced the Colombian national to almost 5 years in prison and the Spanish nationals received prison sentences of between 3 and 4 years. All of the individuals were expelled from Germany after serving half of their sentences. By February 1996, Russian authorities had arrested several Russian accomplices, including a key figure involved in the theft of the material from the institute.

Prague, Czech Republic, 1994

In December 1994, police in Prague, Czech Republic, seized approximately 2.7 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. The material is believed to have been stolen from the Russian Institute of Physics and Power Engineering. The individuals involved included a Tajikistan national, a former Russian nuclear institute worker, and at least one Czech national. The material was brought into the Czech Republic on a train and then hidden for about 6 months while the individuals involved tried to sell it. They were arrested after Czech authorities received an anonymous tip and a Czech judge gave several members of the group prison sentences ranging from about 18 months to 8 years. Two related incidents were reported in June 1995 and involved the seizure of highly enriched uranium in the Czech Republic. According to available information, the composition of the material and its location were linked to the 1994 Prague and Landshut incidents. In both instances, the small quantities of material involved indicated that it was a sample that could be used to attract a potential buyer.

Rousse, Bulgaria, 1999

In May 1999, Bulgarian customs officials at the Rousse border checkpoint seized a vial containing about 0.004 kilograms of highly enriched uranium on the Bulgarian/Romanian border. Rousse is a city that serves as Bulgaria’s principal river port and is a transportation hub for road and rail traffic. The material was hidden in a shielded (lead) container inside the trunk of a car being driven by a Turkish citizen. The driver attempted to sell the material first in Turkey and then traveled through Bulgaria on his way to Romania, where he planned to find a buyer. A Bulgarian customs agent, using standard profiling techniques, suspected that the driver was a smuggler. A search of the driver’s papers revealed a document describing uranium. When the driver attempted to bribe the customs officer, his car was thoroughly inspected and the officer eventually discovered the vial containing the weapons-usable nuclear material. Bulgarian scientists concluded that the material was highly enriched uranium. Although the source of the material is not certain, it is probable that it came from the Mayak Production Association in Russia. This large complex produces special isotopes used for industrial, agricultural, and medical purposes and also reprocesses naval and civil nuclear power reactor fuel for plutonium and uranium recovery.

Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan, 1999

In October 1999, two persons were arrested in the act of selling a small metallic disk containing 0.0015 kilograms of plutonium. The item was analyzed by the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kazakhstan and the two individuals arrested were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Batumi, Georgia, 2000

In April 2000, Georgian police arrested four persons in Batumi, Georgia, for unauthorized possession of 0.9 kilogram of highly enriched uranium fuel pellets. Batumi is a seashore resort at the Black Sea located along the Georgia-Turkey border. According to one press report, the material may have been smuggled from Russia. The pellets mass and shape, together with the reported enrichment level, suggest that the pellets were produced for use in a commercial or experimental fast breeder reactor. Another report also stated that the smugglers were detected when they crossed the Russian border into Georgia, possibly by radiation monitoring equipment and were then trailed to the city of Batumi, where they were apprehended. It is believed that the individuals were trying to smuggle the material into Turkey.

Tbilisi, Georgia, 2000

In September 2000, three persons were arrested at Tbilisi airport for attempting to sell a small quantity of mixed powder containing about 0.0004 kilograms of plutonium and 0.0008 kilograms of low enriched uranium, as well as a 0.002 kilogram sample of natural uranium. According to press reports, an official in the Georgian Ministry of State Security said that two individuals arrested were Georgian citizens, and the third was from Armenia. The individuals said they had brought the uranium and plutonium from Russia and Ukraine to sell it.

Germany, 2000

In December 2000, a worker at a closed spent fuel reprocessing plant removed radioactively contaminated items from the facility, deliberately evading radiation safety monitors. The contaminated items, described as rags and a test tube filled with aging waste material, contained a very minute amount of plutonium.

Greece, 2001

In January 2001, police found a cache of about 300 metallic plates buried in a forest in northern Greece. The material in the plates was determined to be plutonium and a radioactive source known as americium. According to one report, the material had been smuggled into Greece either from one of the countries of the former Soviet Union or Bulgaria. Each plate contained a small quantity of plutonium but the total amount was about 0.003 kilograms. An official from Greece’s atomic energy commission said that the quantity of nuclear material found was insufficient to build a nuclear weapon but the material posed a health hazard. A law enforcement officer speculated that the individuals who buried the metal plates were probably waiting for a potential buyer.

France, 2001

In July 2001, police seized several grams of highly enriched uranium and arrested three suspects in Paris, France. According to preliminary reports, the enrichment level was about 80 percent, but results of laboratory analysis have not yet been reported to the IAEA. One of the suspects had recently completed a prison sentence for fraud charges, and the other two reportedly were citizens of Cameroon. According to one press account, French police found the material encased in a glass bulb that was stored in a lead cylinder.

Note: Uranium enriched with 20 percent or higher U-235 is considered weapons-usable material. One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. One thousand grams equal 1 kilogram and 1 gram is equal to about 0.04 ounces, or the weight of a paperclip.

Source: GAO Report, May 2002: NUCLEAR NONPROLIFERATION: U.S. Efforts to Help Other Countries Combat Nuclear Smuggling Need Strengthened Coordination and Planning