Illicit Nuclear Trafficking in the NIS


The events of September 11, 2001 have intensified concern that terrorist groups will attempt to steal weapons-useable nuclear material in order to build a nuclear weapon. Although stocks of these materials-plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU)-exist in many countries around the world, the largest inventory in the world is held in the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union (NIS). Owing to economic and political turmoil, this material is vulnerable to theft. Since 1991, there have been numerous reports of the theft of such nuclear material from facilities in the NIS, and a close examination of open source evidence reveals 14 confirmed cases of theft or attempted theft of weapons-useable material from NIS facilities between 1991 and 2001.

While international efforts to better secure nuclear material in the NIS have made significant strides, additional efforts are needed to finish the job and ensure that these materials do not fall into the hands of terrorists or proliferant states. Seizures of NIS-origin HEU in 1999 and 2000 indicate that the possible leakage of these materials remains a serious threat. Despite its earlier attempts to reduce the budget of U.S. assistance programs targeted at this threat, the Bush administration has recently taken a step in the right direction by proposing significant increases in these programs, which will accelerate the completion of security upgrades at NIS nuclear facilities and assist NIS states to better monitor their borders and interdict smuggled.nuclear materials.The threat that weapons-useable nuclear material could be stolen from a nuclear facility in the newly-independent states of the former Soviet Union (NIS) and smuggled to a transnational terrorist group or proliferant state represents a significant threat to international security. While analysts have been monitoring this threat since the early 1990s, concern has intensified since the events of September 11, 2001, which vividly demonstrated that terrorists will not hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction if they are able to obtain them. Evidence of attempts by Usama bin Laden and his al-Qai'da network to acquire nuclear material has further reinforced these concerns. As the acquisition of weapons-useable nuclear material remains the principal hurdle to the construction of nuclear weapons, it is critical that these materials-highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium-be adequately guarded against theft.

The Scale of the Threat

It has been estimated that only a few kilograms of plutonium, or several times that amount of HEU, would be needed to make a primitive nuclear weapon, with the amount depending on the composition of the material, the type of weapon, and sophistication of the design. This quantity of weapons-useable nuclear materials would be relatively easy to transport and smuggle. Both plutonium and HEU emit low levels of radiation and can be difficult to uncover with passive detection equipment. While a number of countries in the world possess significant stocks of these materials, the largest inventory in the world is held in the NIS: an estimated 1,350 metric tons of plutonium and HEU, enough to produce approximately 40,000 nuclear weapons. More than 99% of this material is located in Russia, with smaller stocks held in other NIS, including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Much of this material is contained in Russian nuclear weapons, but roughly 600 metric tons, is stored in other various non-weapon forms at more than 50 sites. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been frequent reports of thefts and attempted thefts of nuclear materials in the NIS. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies (CNS) has maintained an open source database of reported nuclear trafficking incidents in the NIS since 1991. The overwhelming majority of these incidents involved materials that cannot be used to make nuclear weapons, such as low-enriched uranium and industrial and medical radiation sources.

Looking closely at the available open source evidence, one can identify 14 confirmed proliferation-significant cases involving the theft or attempted theft of HEU or plutonium from nuclear facilities in NIS (see Table below). In five of these cases, the material was exported beyond the NIS before it was recovered. In seven other cases, the material was seized before it left the NIS. In one case, the whereabouts of the stolen material remains unknown. In an additional case, an attempted theft at a Russian nuclear facility was thwarted before the conspirators removed the material from the site. All of these incidents are of concern because of the type and quantity of material involved and because of the circumstances surrounding them.

Nuclear Trafficking Patterns, 1991-2001

The majority of these nuclear trafficking incidents took place in the early and mid-1990s. Ten of them occurred between 1992 and 1995, the last being the June 1995 seizure of 1.7 kg of HEU by Russian police in Moscow. In all ten of these cases, the material involved had been stolen from Russian nuclear facilities, ranging from nuclear submarine fuel storage sites to research institutes to fuel fabrication facilities. In most of these cases, the material was stolen by an individual employee of the facility motivated by dire economic circumstances. These thieves were generally amateurish in their attempts to market the stolen nuclear material. They either attempted to find a purchaser themselves, or else used personal contacts to connect with middlemen or brokers, who were often no better at finding a market for the stolen materials. Even in those cases when the thieves succeeded in removing HEU or plutonium from the NIS, they moved it to Western or Central Europe rather than heading south in the direction of potential customers in the Middle East and Asia. In most reported cases, the only purchasers these sellers found were undercover police agents.

From 1995 to 1998, there was a three-year period in which no confirmed incidents involving illicit trafficking in HEU and plutonium from the NIS were reported in open sources. It should be noted, however, that the exact date of the theft of approximately 2 kg of HEU from a research institute in Sukhumi, Georgia remains unknown. The material disappeared sometime between 1992 and 1997, but has not yet been recovered. This apparent three-year hiatus prompted some analysts to argue that the threat of illicit nuclear trafficking had receded, citing increased efforts by NIS states-with international assistance-to improve the safeguarding of nuclear materials. Others, however, argued that the lack of confirmed cases since 1995 did not necessarily indicate that illicit trafficking had ceased. These "pessimists" pointed out that the apparent lull could instead be the result of more sophisticated smuggling techniques, the use of new smuggling routes, or the operation of well-organized groups of insiders at nuclear facilities. They argued that the amateurish "visible" nuclear black market observed in the cases described above may be a very poor representation of an "invisible" nuclear black market that has largely escaped detection.

Since 1998, a handful of new cases has suggested that the "pessimists" have a point. While clear evidence of a well-developed "invisible" illicit market in weapons-useable nuclear material has not emerged, these cases demonstrate the presence of many of the key elements of such a market. For example, unlike the earlier cases involving disgruntled individual employees, the December 1998 attempted theft of 18.5 kg of HEU from an unspecified nuclear facility in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia, involved an organized group of facility employees. Although this group was thwarted before it could steal any nuclear material, the case underlines the continuing threat posed by sophisticated insider conspiracies. In contrast to the earlier cases of trafficking in which material was exported to Western Europe, the new cases, including the seizure of HEU in Bulgaria in May 1999 and Georgia in April 2000, suggest that nuclear materials may now be headed south, toward possible buyers in the Middle East and Asia. More sophisticated middlemen and brokers have also been engaged in marketing nuclear materials in recent years. A March 1998 case in Italy involving research reactor fuel stolen from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) offers evidence of organized criminal involvement in illicit nuclear trafficking. According to U.S. and Italian media reports, an Italian organized crime group was trying to market the fuel to either a Middle Eastern state or terrorist organization. The involvement of organized crime makes this case significant, even though the reactor fuel involved was only enriched to 19.9% uranium-235, just below the threshold for HEU. This case does not provide direct evidence that Russian-organized crime groups or arms traffickers are acting as middlemen and brokers for smuggled nuclear materials. But it does suggest that at least some organized crime groups have decided that the potential profit of engaging in such activities justifies the risk.

Taken together, these cases suggest the possible existence of an "invisible" market in which nuclear material is stolen by sophisticated insider conspiracies at NIS nuclear facilities and smuggled toward potential customers in the Middle East and Asia; the smugglers may follow southern smuggling routes through Southeast Europe and the Caucasus (or perhaps through Central Asia, although no proliferation-significant cases involving HEU or plutonium have yet been confirmed there). It should also be noted that in addition to the 14 confirmed cases discussed above, there have been other cases involving the theft or loss of HEU and plutonium from NIS facilities about which there is insufficient open source evidence to reach any firm conclusions. The reported July 2001 seizure of 5g HEU in Paris--although publicly unconfirmed by French authorities--may involve material from the NIS. In another instance, an official of the Russian nuclear regulatory agency, Gosatomnadzor, said in November 2001 that there had been an incident involving a serious loss of nuclear material during 2000-2001. Additional details of this incident have not been revealed, however. There are also reports that the Russian official who first revealed the December 1998 attempted theft of HEU in Chelyabinsk was reprimanded for publicly revealing the incident. Such incidents strongly suggest that there may be additional nuclear trafficking that has been concealed by NIS authorities, remain unpublicized, and may form a key part of an "invisible" market. Recent discussion of Usama bin Laden's repeated attempts to purchase nuclear materials, including hints by U.S. officials of evidence recently uncovered in Afghanistan, as well as earlier cases involving the activities of Iraqi and Iranian agents seeking weapons of mass destruction technology in Russia, make it clear that there are potential purchasers for smuggled nuclear material.

Policy Options

Despite these troubling signs, there is no clear evidence that any significant quantities of HEU or plutonium have been smuggled out of the NIS to potential end users, be they terrorist organizations or states. In addition, regardless of the reappearance of nuclear trafficking incidents since 1998, significant steps have been taken by Russia and other NIS, in cooperation with the United States and additional members of the international community, to improve the security of their nuclear materials and better guard their borders. The U.S. Department of Energy Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) program is working cooperatively with NIS facilities to upgrade the security of nuclear materials. The MPC&A program has reported that as of July 2001, it had already installed rapid or comprehensive security upgrades covering 37% of the roughly 600 metric tons of nuclear material in the NIS. Still, at current funding levels, all NIS facilities will not receive fully upgraded security and accounting systems until end of fiscal year (FY) 2007. However, even after these upgrades have been completed, their continued effective operation must be sustained by adequate funding and political support both from NIS countries and the international community. Such longer-term support is particularly important for facilities in the non-Russian NIS, which often receive less attention than their Russian counterparts.

Continued and intensified international and bilateral cooperation is clearly necessary if the threat of illicit nuclear trafficking in the NIS is to be adequately addressed. When it first took office, the Bush administration sought significant cuts in the FY 2002 budgets of nonproliferation assistance programs to the NIS. Congress, however, restored most of these cuts. In the aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration has recognized the importance of these programs and, for FY 2003, has requested funding comparable to that appropriated by Congress in FY 2002. While this change is a positive step, further acceleration of these programs, especially the MPC&A program, deserves consideration. While funding levels are important, both the United States and the NIS also need to place a higher political priority on these programs and provide them with clear strategic leadership, which has been lacking in recent years. The United States, its allies, and NIS states, in the context of the post-September 11, 2001, war on terrorism, should also institute intelligence-sharing in the area of illicit nuclear trafficking. Finally, member states should mandate greater cooperation and coordination between international organizations that are responsible for addressing the threat of illicit nuclear trafficking, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Customs Organization, and Interpol.

Overview of Confirmed Proliferation-Significant Incidents of Fissile Material Trafficking in the NIS, 1991-2001

Scope Note: This table describes incidents involving trafficking in HEU and plutonium in the NIS that CNS considers both confirmed and proliferation-significant. Confirmed cases are those that have been reported by multiple, independent, reliable sources. Proliferation-significant incidents are those in which (1) more than miniscule quantities of HEU or plutonium are involved; or (2) other aspects of the incident, such as the characteristics of the material involved, or the circumstances surrounding its theft, raise unusual concerns in terms of proliferation. [1]



  • Emily Ewell, "NIS Nuclear Smuggling Since 1995: A Lull in Significant Cases?" Nonproliferation Review 5 (Spring-Summer 1998).
  • Oleg Bukharin and William C. Potter, "Potatoes Were Guarded Better," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 51 (May/June 1995).
  • Randall Stone, "Nuclear Trafficking, A Real and Dangerous Threat," Science 292 (June 1, 2001), pp. 1632-1636,
  • Scott Parrish and Tamara Robinson, "Special Report: Efforts to Strengthen Export Controls and Combat Illicit Trafficking and Braindran," Nonproliferation Review 6 (Spring 2000).
  • Emily Ewell Daughtry and Fred Wehling, "Cooperative Efforts to Secure Fissile Material in the NIS," Nonproliferation Review 6 (Spring 2000).


  • "Nuclear Leakage from the Post-Soviet States," Testimony before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, March 13, 1996.


  • U.S. National Intelligence Council, "Annual Report to Congress on the Safety and Security of Russian Nuclear Facilities and Military Forces," February 22, 2002.
  • The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, U.S. Department of Energy, "A Report Card on the Department of Energy's Nonproliferation Programs with Russia," January 10, 2001.
  • U.S. General Accounting Office, "Nuclear Nonproliferation: Security of Russia's Nuclear Material Improving; Further Enhancements Needed," GAO-01-312, February 28, 2001,
  • Rensselaer Lee, "Nuclear Smuggling from the Former Soviet Union: Threats and Responses," Foreign Policy Research Institute," April 27, 2001,
  • Matthew Bunn, "The Next Wave, Urgently Needed New Steps to Control Warheads and Fissile Material," Harvard University Project on Managing the Atom and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000.
  • Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate, "Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, and Latvian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development," Report on Combating of Illicit Trafficking, January 2000.
  • "Proceedings of the IAEA Conference on Measures to Prevent, Intercept and Respond to Illicit Uses of Nuclear Material and Radioactive Sources," Stockholm, Sweden, May 7-11, 2001.


  • Rensselaer Lee, Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market in the Former Soviet Union and Europe, New York: St. Martin's, 1998.
  • James L. Ford and C. Richard Schuller, Controlling Threats to National Security: A Holistic Model, Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1997.

[1] The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintains a table of "Confirmed Incidents with Plutonium or High-Enriched Uranium," listing 18 incidents. The table below notes only 14 incidents. The discrepancy results from different criteria used to compile the two charts. The IAEA table includes 3 incidents which are not clearly linked to the NIS. These cases are not included in the chart below. The IAEA chart also includes two small seizures linked to the 1994 Prague case as separate incidents and one seizure linked to the 1994 Munich case as a separate incident. These are noted under the Munich and Prauge incidents in the chart below, but are not listed as separate incidents. The IAEA chart also includes three small seizures involving a few grams of plutonium in Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Georgia, which CNS judged not to be proliferation-significant. Overall, of the 18 incidents listed by the IAEA, the chart below covers 12 (but only 9 are listed separately). The chart below also describes five incidents not included in the IAEA chart: the Podolsk incident, the Andreyeva Guba incident, the Sevmorput incident, the Chelyabinsk incident, and the Sukhumi incident. The IAEA includes only incidents that have been verified by member states, and these cases, although noted in multiple open-source reports, may not have been reported as trafficking incidents to the IAEA. The IAEA table also does not list incidents prior to 1993, which accounts for the absence of the 1992 Podolsk incident.
[2] This case is included in the list of confirmed trafficking incidents largely on the basis of reports made to IAEA by the Russian Federation. Additional corroborating evidence, however, is not readily available.

March 1, 2002

The events of September 11, 2001 have intensified concern that terrorist groups will attempt to steal weapons-useable nuclear material in order to build a nuclear weapon.

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 2018.