January 26, 2007
Uranium Easy to Get, Sting Case Reveals
NEW YORK -- Nobody knows where Oleg Khinsagov got the 100 grams of highly enriched uranium he tried to sell recently to security agents in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
But one thing is for sure - wherever it came from, there's plenty more. The most recent episode of international intrigue involving a radioactive substance, revealed by Georgian authorities Wednesday, demonstrates just how uncontrolled and easily smuggled nuclear bomb-making materials are in the states of the former Soviet Union.
While it is theoretically possible to use chemical analysis to trace the origin of enriched uranium, in practice it would be very difficult to determine where Khinsagov obtained the material he was attempting to sell.
"It could possibly only tell you where it was initially produced," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based nuclear proliferation think-tank.
While there are only four enrichment plants in the former Soviet Union, the hundreds of tons of material they have produced is distributed among more than 50 different facilities.
Though Western governments have invested billions of dollars helping Russia keep tabs on these dangerous ingredients, accounting has been so poor that it is impossible to know how much has been lost or stolen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of them rely on little more than guards and fences for security.
Though Russia is a primary source of concern due to the Soviet Union's weapons production, there are more than 50 countries where highly enriched uranium is used as part of a civilian nuclear power program.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there have been numerous cases in recent years of smugglers making off with small amounts of nuclear material. Though the quarter-pound amount Khinsagov sold to the Georgian security agents was relatively insignificant, the concern is that it could have represented a sample from a much larger stash.
"The guy said he had more," Albright noted. "It could be a significant amount was taken this time and 100 grams was just the sample."
Because uranium emits a form of radiation that cannot penetrate skin, and is much less radioactive than the polonium used to poison former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London last year, it can be stored and transported with little or no safety measures. Putting it in a lead-lined container would make it difficult or impossible to detect even with the most advanced equipment.
With enough physics and engineering expertise, a terrorist group could make a nuclear device with as little as 30 to 40 pounds of highly enriched uranium, Albright said. A more primitive weapon would require 100 pounds or more of weapons-grade uranium.
There are no blueprints for a nuclear bomb on the Internet, Albright said, but plans are available on the black market and the other essential materials would not be that difficult to acquire or build.
Uranium is considered enriched if it contains more than 20 percent uranium-235, the fissile form of the element. It is considered weapons-grade if it contains at least 85 percent uranium-235. Natural uranium contains less than 1 percent of the fissile isotope.