1.8kg Uranium Seized in Batumi, Georgia

Abstract:

Police in the Georgian port city of Batumi arrested four Georgian citizens for attempting to smuggle "about two kilograms" of uranium to Turkey, Interfax reported on 24 July 2001.  The report described the seized material as "U-235, used as fuel in atomic reactors," but did not specify the enrichment level.  Soso Kakushadze, a spokesman for the Georgian Ministry of the Environment, described the quantity of uranium involved in the incident as "insignificant" in terms of military uses.  A 24 July 2001 report by RIA-Novosti noted that the quantity of uranium involved was 1.8kg, adding that one of the four suspects was the captain of a ship, presumably the vessel on which the smugglers hoped to transport the uranium to Turkey.[1] Leri Meskhi, another representative of the Georgian Ministry of the Environment told RIA-Novosti that the material did not present a health hazard to those in its immediate vicinity, but he did express concern that the material had apparently entered Georgia without being detected.[1] Meskhi said that 1kg of this type of uranium was probably worth $1,000-2,000, but that the smugglers would probably have tried to sell it for a higher price.[1]

Citing Georgian Military Prosecutor Amiran Verulidze, Kavkasia-Press reported on 24 July 2001 that the suspects arrested included Shora Gladze, identified as a "senior officer at the Defense Ministry logistical control center," and Tamaz Jaiani, a resident of Tbilisi.[2] Verulidze said that the arrests were made on 18 July 2001, and that the seized material had been transported to the site of the now-closed research reactor of the Georgian Institue of Physics at Mtskheta, 20km outside Tbilisi, for analysis.[2] Verulidze said that the suspects are already subject to a three-month detention warrant issued by a Georgian court, and will be prosecuted for violation of Article 230 of the Georgian Criminal Code, which provides for five years' imprisonment for the illegal shipment, sale, or storage of radioactive substances.[2] Kakushadze told Russia's Agenstvo voyennykh novostey [Military News Agency] that the uranium could have entered Georgia "from any other CIS country" and was seized while in transit.[3] He noted that it was the third case involving uranium trafficking in the Adzharia region of Georgia [for details of the earlier two incidents in September 1999 and April 2000, see abstracts 19990840 and 20000260.]

In a translated headline attached to the text of a 24 July 2001 report by Tbilisi's Prime-News agency, FBIS described the incident as involving "weapons-grade uranium." However, the actual text of the translated article mentioned only uranium-235, without specifying an enrichment level.[4]  A 26 July 2001 report by Agenstvo voyennykh novostey cited "Georgian experts" as saying that the seized uranium was "enriched," adding that it "may have been stolen from a Russian submarine."[8] [If the latter characterization is correct, it could mean that the material is highly-enriched uranium, as Russian submarine reactors are believed to use uranium fuel enriched to 21% to 90% (see the naval reactor technology overview from the NIS Nuclear Profiles Database for details).] This article added that the suspects had been storing the uranium in a glass jar in their hotel room, and had hoped to sell the material for $80,000/kg.[8] Georgian police also indicated that the traffickers intended to sell the uranium to a third party once they reached Turkey, but did not name the suspected final destination.[8] 

Western media also reported on the story.  An article in the 25 July issue of the London newspaper The Guardian repeated the claim that the material was "weapons-grade uranium," and cited concerns that it may have been destined for sale to a "rogue state" (such as Iran or North Korea) or terrorist group.[5] The article also repeated the claim that the material had been stolen from a Russian nuclear submarine.[5] It cited Igor Kudrik of the Bellona Foundation as saying that "it is an extremely worrying case," because highly-enriched uranium could be used to make a nuclear weapon.[5] It also cited Ivan Safranchuk of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information as saying that "if this material does turn out, after analysis, really to have been highly enriched uranium, then it is very scary news."[5] However, Safranchuk added that "it is extremely unusual for highly enriched uranium to be found on sale."[5] A report in Middle East Newsline said that the uranium is believed to have been destined for Iran, but gave no evidence to support this view.[6] It also repeated the assertion that the material was "weapons-grade."[6]

In contrast to these reports, a Georgian NGO that follows proliferation issues in the Caucasus told CNS on 27 July that preliminary analysis indicates that the material is "for nuclear power stations," and "is not highly enriched."[7] The NGO also reported that one of the suspects, Tamaz Jaiani, had acquired the uranium in the Georgian city of Gori, located near the border with the South Ossetian region of Russia.[7] The main road into Georgia from Russia passes through Gori, which is known to have an active market in good smuggled from Russia.[7] In further correspondence with CNS on 8 August 2001, the Georgian NGO reported that an analysis of the seized material conducted at the Georgian Institute of Physics had determined that it was taken from a nuclear power plant fuel assembly, and was enriched to 3.6% U-235.[9] It also clarified that the smugglers were first detected by Georgian police in Gori, where they acquired the uranium, and then tailed to Batumi, where the arrest took place.[9]

Abstract Number :  20010300
Headline:  1.8kg Uranium Seized in Batumi, Georgia
Date:  24 July 2001
Bibliography:   Interfax, 24 July 2001
Material:   LEU

Sources:

[1] Elena Imedashvili, "V Gruzii peresechena popytka nezakonnogo vyvoza v Turtsiyu okolo 2 kilogramma urana-235 [Attempt to illegally export about 2 kilograms of uranium-235 from Georgia to Turkey thwarted]," RIA Novosti, 24 July 2001; in Integrum Techno, http://www.integrum.ru
[2] Kavkasia-Press (Tbilisi), 24 July 2001; in "Defense Ministry Official Arrested on Uranium Smuggling Charges," FBIS Document CEP20010724000221.
[3] Agenstvo voyennykh novostey (Moscow), http://www.military news.ru, 24 July 2001; in "Adzharian Region Prevents Illegal Export of Uranium-235," FBIS Document CEP20010724000248.
[4] Tbilisi Prime-News, 24 July 2001; in "Quantity of Weapons-Grade Uranium Siezed in Georgia," FBIS Document CEP20010724000038.
[5] Amelia Gentleman and Ewen MacAskill, "Weapons-Grade Uranium Seized: 1.7kg of Nuclear Material Found in Georgia May Have Been Destined For a Rogue State or Terror Group," The Guardian, 25 July 2001; in Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe
[6] "Seized U-235 Shipment Could Have Been for Iran," Middle East Newsline, 30 July 2001.
[7] CNS Correspondence with the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development, 27 July 2001.
[8] Agenstvo voyennykh novostey (Moscow), http://www.militarynews.ru, 26 July 2001; in "Smuggled Uranium Possibly Seized from Sub, Say Georgian Experts," FBIS Document CEP20010726000148.
[9] CNS Correspondence with the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development, 8 August 2001.

July 24, 2001
About

This article is part of a collection examining reported incidents of nuclear or radioactive materials trafficking in or originating from the Newly Independent States.

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.