Moldova arrests six people in uranium smuggling case

30/06/2011

The suspects were allegedly trying to sell more than 1kg of weapons-grade uranium for 20m euros.

(ABC News - 30/06/11; PROtv Chisinau, Telegraph, The New York Times, AP, AFP, RFE/RL, BBC - 29/06/11; The Washington Times - 03/06/11; Nuclear Threat Initiative)

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Moldovan police arrested six people suspected of trying to sell uranium-235. [Reuters]

Moldovan authorities said on Wednesday (June 29th) that they have detained six people suspected of trying to sell more than 1kg of uranium-235, believed to have been brought into the country from Russia.

Four of the unidentified suspects are Moldovan citizens, one is from the country's breakaway Trans-Dniester region and one is Russian, Vitalie Briceag, an official of the Moldovan interior ministry, told reporters.

He said that the group was arrested in Chisinau on Monday while they were negotiating the sale of the bomb-grade radioactive material for 20m euros.

"Police have learned that they had found a potential customer, a citizen of a Muslim country in Africa," Briceag told AFP.

Uranium-235, which has a half-life of more than 700 million years, is one of the three isotopes of natural uranium and the only one among them that can sustain a chain reaction, making it also the only one among them that can be used in nuclear weapons. It makes up less than 1% of natural uranium. Weapons-grade uranium must contain highly enriched uranium (HEU) with a concentration of uranium-235 exceeding 90%.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear watchdog, says that the amount of uranium-235 needed to make a nuclear bomb is 25kg, the AP reported.

"The container with uranium has been in Chisinau for a week," Briceag said at Wednesday's news conference. "All that time intermediaries were looking for buyers. The container, 20cm long and 40cm in diameter, was found at one of the detained men's apartments."

The group believed they were negotiating with a potential North African buyer, news agencies quoted the Moldovan official as saying. A police video released to the media shows one of the members of the gang telling the customer, who was an undercover security agent, that he could get a kilo of uranium, but not the whole quantity at once.

Footage broadcast by television channel PROtv Chisinau on Wednesday also showed special police in ski masks shoving a handcuffed grey-haired man into a car. In other footage, a Geiger counter started beeping rapidly when plain-clothes officers, wearing white gloves, placed the instrument near the metal container.

Moldovan authorities said the contents of the canister would be sent to a Western country for expert analysis, promising to provide more information after the results become clear.

Monday's arrests were the outcome of a several-month long investigation, according to Briceag.

"We have been helped by experts from Ukraine, Germany and the United States," he said. "We have been following the suspects since March."

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Last August, the Moldovan authorities seized 1.8kg of uranium-238 in Chisinau. Several members of a gang, including former police officers, were arrested while trying to sell the material, which cannot be used in nuclear weapons.

This week's case is not the first instance of illicit trafficking of nuclear material in a country that was part of the former Soviet Union.

In March 2010, Ukrainian authorities arrested six local citizens who were trying to sell 2.5kg of depleted uranium for $200,000 (over 145,000 euros at the time), according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a US-based non-partisan, non-profit organisation.

In another case cited by the group, Kazakhstan's customs officers detained in December last year a car pulling a semitrailer loaded with 20 tonnes of radioactive scrap metal. The vehicle, which was held at the Zhanazhol checkpoint in Northern Kazakhstan, was travelling to Ankara.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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