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How Worried Should We be About Moldova's Recent Uranium-Smuggling Bust?

The $2.1 million worth of uranium seized in a raid last week is only one of an exceptional number of nuclear-material thefts, losses, or smugglings recorded over the past two decades.

Uranium image courtesy of  ​WikiCommons

Moldo​va police arrested seven individuals Tuesday who, upon capture, admitted to smuggling seven ounces of uranium valued at $2.1 million and just over two pounds of mercury into the country from Russia. The material in question was seized in a raid last week.

Such a high-profile bust of uranium smugglers has raised concern, especially amid  fears of the Islamic State's quest for or possession of nuclear materials. However the amount of uranium found in Moldova, even if it turns out to be an enriched, weapons-grade form, could not be used to construct a nuclear weapon. It could be incorporated into a dirty bomb, but according to Stratfor, the d​anger of such devices has been exaggerated in the media.

Yet even if the most recent Moldovan bust is not that concerning, it is only one of an exceptional number of nuclear-material thefts, losses, or smugglings recorded over the past two decades. Many of these incidents occurred in Moldova or nearby countries and involved appreciable amounts of weapons-grade materials. These numbers, combined with the fact that the Moldovan suspects admitted they had experience handling nuclear materials, suggest a growing sophistication and scale of such smuggling operations, increasing the risk that enough low- or high-grade materials for a dangerous dirty bomb may make it to those with the will to use them.

Troves of radioactive materials, used in industrial processes, medical procedures, mining, and even the production of consumer goods, exist across the world. The bulk of these supplies, like cesium or cobalt, are not radioactive enough to pose a significant threat in a dirty bomb or even capable of use in a nuclear weapon. Dangerous items, like the world's 3.5 million pounds of 90-plus-percent enriched (weapons-grade) uranium or 1.1 million pounds of plutonium, are far less common and supposedly better secured. And dwarfing the seven ounces in Moldova, it would take 22 to 33 pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a developed state and up to 88 pounds for a ramshackle operation to make even a crude, small nuclear weapon. Retailing at $10,000 per gram as o​f 2011, HEU is extremely inaccessible.

More than a nuclear missile, most security experts worry about low-grade radioactive materials and small quantities of HEU or plutonium being used in dirty bombs. Yet these devices—conventional bombs packed with nuclear material meant to scatter radioactive waste over a town rather than trigger a massive nuclear explosion, depending on the amount and strength of material included—may not even be able to cause radiation sickness. The attendant evacuation, containment, and cleanup could be more dangerous as an economic weapon.

Governments assure citizens that nuclear materials, especially HEU and plutonium, are tightly controlled, and that new and existing technologies allow us to detect smuggled radioactive material reliably. But it's hard to forget incidents like the American Broadcasting Corporations 20​02 and 2003 exposes on the ease of smuggling depleted uranium into America.

It's also difficult to guarantee the security of global supplies of radioactive material since we do not know how much ​was manufactured in states like the Soviet Union, or how much of it was stolen and put into storage during the relative insecurity of the 1990s. Even today, there are blank spots on the world map in which it is easy to secrete and smuggle such materials, like the Moldovan breakaway region of Transn​istria.

"Transnistria is a black hole," said Moldovan Interior Ministry official Vitalie Briceag in 2011, regarding another case of uranium smuggling in that nation. "Neither we nor any other Western security service can control the black market there."

These safe havens, and the unknown amount of nuclear materials swimming around the world, have contributed to a shocking number of recorded cases of loss, theft, or smuggling. From 1993 to 2013, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency's Incident and Trafficking Database, which only collects self-reported data from 125 participating nations, recorded 1,088 such incidents around the world.

Many cases, like last year's disappearance of a shipment of cobalt-60 in Mexico, or this year's 100 pounds of cesium-137, which fell off the back of a truck in Kazakhstan, aren't particularly worrying as dirty bomb components. And the bulk of uranium cases, like the 2013 arrests of smugglers in New​ York and Durban, ​South Africa, involved only the un-enriched "yellowc​ake."

Yet over a dozen incidents​ during this period, and perhaps over a dozen more in the early 1990s, involved HEU, sometimes in appreciable amounts. The veracity of so​me theft and smuggling re​ports is questionable, but the overall volume suggests that at least some are valid. And a shocking number of these cases involve Eastern European, Caucasus, and Central Asian states, especially Russia, Georgia, and Moldova.

Possibly the first case of a (failed) weapons-grade uranium theft-and-smuggling occurred in Russia in 1992 and involved 3.3 pounds of the substance. This was followed quickly by cases in 1993, 199​7, and (twice) in 199​8 involving 9.6, 11, 10, and 40.8 pounds of HEU, respectively—mostly from supposedly secure facilities and bound for unknown external buyers. That's 71.4 collective pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and it's only the cases we know about and thwarted somewhere between the thief's break-in and the buyer hand-off.

More recent, high-profile cases include lesser amounts, never above four pounds, seized in Georgia in 20​01, 20​06, and 2010, and in Moldova in 20​10 and 20​11 (and earlier this year in the Ukraine in a car with Moldov​an plates). But authorities claim that these small yet clustered busts were just the tip of more​ substantial operations—the proof-of-concept shipment for large buyers. Since 2012,​ the UN IAEA has argued that this region is developing sophisticated, widespread, and robust nuclear materials smuggling rings, which may be able to move dangerous amounts of low- or high-grade nuclear materials reliably around the region at least.

A recent case involving a Chinese man supposedly smuggling American-made uranium enrichment supplies to Iran also points to the fact that, even if low-grade materials are not inherently dangerous, well-funded organizations can secure the materials to enhance them.

Individually, busts like Tuesday's in Moldova are nothing to worry about. Nor are small seizures of nuclear​ material by IS or their threats of building a dirty bomb with these old, depleted supplies. What is worrying is the trend the Moldova case, and its savvy smugglers, feed into—one of wider organizations of semi-skilled or skilled criminal organizations successfully moving many small or a few large shipments of dangerous materials to dangerous buyers.

With enough low-grade or high-grade materials, the receiving parties may not be able to create a nuclear bomb (unless they are wealthy states), but they could create a deadlier, more disruptive dirty bomb—and perhaps many of them. And as we wait to see what the future holds, the uncertainty created by these shadowy forces and numerous nuclear security breaches will take their own toll on the public, as well as nuclear and defense planners alike.

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