Moldovan authorities believe that 2.2 pounds of weapon-usable uranium is held by traffickers who have in the past sought to sell the material to North African buyers, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday (see GSN, June 30).
Though the quantity of fissile material is not enough to fuel a warhead, the probe into the missing uranium -- assumed to have been pilfered from a former Soviet atomic installation with inadequate security -- has raised worries about connections between European smugglers and North Africa, a region home to multiple violent extremist groups.
"Should the existence of a legitimate buyer (or middleman) from a region with a history of terror cells be confirmed, then the case would be substantially more alarming than other recent fissile material interdictions, where official agents were the sole potential buyer," states a report from the office of U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).
Officials from the Eastern European state in June detained six suspected traffickers and confiscated 4.4 grams of uranium following a sting operation. Still unaccounted for are a Russian man thought to head the operation and a North African man who authorities think tried to purchase uranium prior to abruptly leaving Moldova. U.S. officials are supporting Moldovan authorities in their search for the two men.
There is not much information regarding the man from North Africa other than he is thought to have married a Moldovan woman and to have left the nation. Authorities would not disclose his citizenship.
During the probe, officials found a computer in the office of one accused smuggler that indicated the ring had attempted to find a buyer in North Africa.
At the time of the June sting, the trafficking ring asserted to Moldovan investigators masquerading as interested buyers that they held 20 pounds of highly enriched uranium and some plutonium as well, according to the Lugar report, which was obtained by AP prior to publication. The smugglers were seeking close to $31 million for the uranium. About 60 pounds of HEU material would be required to construct an improvised nuclear device.
It is not clear whether the smugglers were bluffing about the greater stash of uranium. Moldovan prosecutors said their repeated questioning of the accused traffickers led them to conclude the ring likely does have some uranium.
"Members of the ring, who have not yet been detained, have 1 kilogram of uranium" stored in another nation, Moldovan prosecutors spokeswoman Maria Vieru told AP.
The small quantity of HEU material seized from the smugglers has been identified through nuclear forensics as originating from particular Russian enrichment plants and has the same chemical and radioactive signature as material seized in one other known interdiction, U.N. and U.S. officials said.
Former International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said a small amount of weapon-grade uranium might have been stolen from Russian stockpiles marked for nonmilitary use in research reactors. However, if the smugglers were truthful about the 20 pounds of HEU material, it would point to access to military caches.
Verification of the purported smugglers' claim regarding possession of plutonium would be especially worrisome, as smaller quantities of plutonium are required to construct a nuclear weapon. Plutonium can also be added to explosives to create a radiological "dirty bomb."
Moldovan investigators think the Russian nuclear material was smuggled through Transnistria, a recognized sanctuary for traffickers. Air travel into the breakaway Moldovan region cannot be tracked and the territory's borders with Ukraine and Moldova are not adequately monitored, according to the Lugar report.
Russian officials "are taking appropriate action" in assisting in the smuggling probe, White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said (Desmond Butler, Associated Press/Washington Post, Sept. 27).