AP exclusive: Georgia details nuke investigations

AP exclusive: Georgia details nuke investigations

15:30 – 10.12.12

Georgia (AP) – On the gritty side of this casino resort town near the
Turkish border, three men in a hotel suite gathered in secret to talk
about a deal for radioactive material.

The Georgian seller offered cesium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors
that terrorists can use to arm a dirty bomb with the power to kill.
But one of the Turkish men, wearing a suit and casually smoking a
cigarette, made clear he was after something even more dangerous:
uranium, the material for a nuclear bomb.

The would-be buyers agreed to take a photo of the four cylinders and
see if their boss in Turkey was interested. They did not know police
were watching through a hidden camera. As they got up to leave, the
police rushed in and arrested the men, according to Georgian
officials, who were present.

The encounter, which took place in April, reflected a fear shared by
US and Georgian officials: Despite years of effort and hundreds of
millions of dollars spent in the fight against the illicit sale of
nuclear contraband, the black market remains active in the countries
around the former Soviet Union. The radioactive materials, mostly left
over from the Cold War, include nuclear bomb-grade uranium and
plutonium, and dirty-bomb isotopes like cesium and iridium.

The extent of the black market is unknown, but a steady stream of
attempted sales of radioactive materials in recent years suggests
smugglers have sometimes crossed borders undetected. Since the
formation of a special nuclear police unit in 2005 with US help and
funding, 15 investigations have been launched in Georgia and dozens of
people arrested.

Six of the investigations were disclosed publicly for the first time
to The Associated Press by Georgian authorities. Officials with the
U.S. government and the International Atomic Energy Agency declined to
comment on the individual investigations, but President Barack Obama
noted in a speech earlier this year that countries like Georgia and
Moldova have seized highly enriched uranium from smugglers. An IAEA
official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to
comment, said the agency is concerned smuggling is still occurring in

Four of the previously undisclosed cases, and a fifth – an arrest in
neighboring Turkey announced by officials there – occurred this year.
One from last year involved enough cesium-137 to make a deadly dirty
bomb, officials said.

Also, Georgian officials see links between two older cases involving
highly enriched uranium, which in sufficient quantity can be used to
make a nuclear bomb. The AP’s interviews with the two imprisoned
smugglers in one case suggested that the porous borders and the
poverty of the region contributed to the problem.

The arrests in the casino resort of Batumi stand out for two reasons:
They suggest there are real buyers – many of the other investigations
involved stings with undercover police acting as buyers. And they
suggest that buyers are interested in material that can be used to
make a nuclear weapon.

“Real buyers are rare in nuclear smuggling cases, and raise real
risks,” said nuclear nonproliferation specialist Matthew Bunn, who
runs Harvard’s Project on Managing the Atom. “They suggest someone is
actively seeking to buy material for a clandestine bomb.”
The request for uranium raises a particularly troubling question.

“There’s no plausible reason for looking for black-market uranium
other than for nuclear weapons – or profit, by selling to people who
are looking to make nuclear weapons,” said Bunn.

Georgia’s proximity to the large stockpiles of Cold War-era nuclear
material, its position along trade routes to Asia and Europe, the
roughly 225 miles (360 kilometers) of unsecured borders of its two
breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the poverty of
the region may explain why the nation of 4.5 million has become a
transit point for nuclear material. Georgian officials say the
radioactive material in the five new cases this year all transited
through Abkhazia, which borders on Russia and has Russian troops
stationed on its territory.

Abkhazia’s foreign ministry said it has no information about the
Georgian allegations and would not comment, but in the past it has
denied Georgian allegations.

Russia maintains that it has secured its radioactive material –
including bomb-grade uranium and plutonium – and that Georgia has
exaggerated the risk because of political tension with Moscow. But
while the vast majority of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal
and radioactive material has been secured, U.S. officials say that
some material in the region remains loose.

“Without a doubt, we are aware and have been over the last several
years that not all nuclear material is accounted for,” says Simon
Limage, deputy assistant secretary for non-proliferation programs at
the U.S. State Department. “It is true that a portion that we are
concerned about continues to be outside of regulatory control.”

US efforts to prevent smuggling have prioritized bomb-grade material
because of the potential that a nuclear bomb could flatten a

US city. But security officials say an attack with a dirty bomb –
explosives packed with radioactive material – would be easier for a
terrorist to pull off. And terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, have
sought the material to do so. A study by the National Defense
University found that the economic impact from a dirty bomb attack of
a sufficient scale on a city center could exceed that of the September
11, 2011, attacks on New York and Washington.

The US government has been assisting about a dozen countries believed
to be vulnerable to nuclear smuggling, including Georgia, to set up
teams that combine intelligence with police undercover work. Limage
says Georgia’s team is a model for the other countries the US is

On Jan. 6, police arrested a man in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, and
seized 36 vials with cesium-135, a radioactive isotope that is hard to
use for a weapon. The man said he had obtained the material in
Abkhazia. In April, Georgian authorities arrested a group of smugglers
from Abkhazia bringing in three glass containers with about 2.2 pounds
(1 kilogram) of yellowcake uranium, a lightly processed substance that
can be enriched into bomb-grade material.

“At first we thought that this was coincidence,” said Archil
Pavlenishvili, chief investigator of Georgia’s anti-smuggling team.
“But since all of these cases were connected with Abkhazia, it
suggests that the stuff was stolen recently from one particular place.
But we have no idea where. ”

Days later, more evidence turned up when Turkish media reported the
arrest of three Turkish men with a radioactive substance in the
capital, Ankara. Police seized 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of cesium-135,
the same material seized in January in Tbilisi.

Georgian officials said the suspects were residents of Germany and
driving a car with German plates, but that the material had come from
Abkhazia. Turkish authorities said the men had entered Turkey from
Georgia. Information provided by German authorities led to the arrest
in June of five suspects in Georgia with 9 vials of cesium-135 that
looked very similar to the vials seized in January.

The Batumi investigation started after the arrest of two men in the
city of Kutaisi in February 2011 year with a small quantity of two
radioactive materials stolen from an abandoned Soviet helicopter
factory, according to Georgian officials. The men said that a
businessman, Soslan Oniani, had encouraged them to sell the material.

Police interviewed Oniani and searched his house, but found
insufficient evidence to arrest him, according to officials. Still,
they kept monitoring him through phone taps and an informant. Georgian
officials say Oniani was a braggart, who played on his relationship
with his cousin, Tariel Oniani, a well- known organized crime boss
convicted in Russia of kidnapping.

Early this year, Soslan Oniani started talking about a new deal.
Through surveillance and phone taps, police learned of the meeting in
Batumi and monitored it. While no money passed hands, the men
discussed an illegal deal, which is sufficient for prosecution in

Tests by Georgian authorities later revealed that one lead cylinder
held cesium-137, two strontium-90, and the fourth spent material that
was hard to identify. All are useful for making a dirty bomb, although
the material in the cylinders alone was not enough to cause mass
casualties, according to data provided by Georgian nuclear regulatory

The arrested Turks denied knowing they were negotiating for
radioactive substances. They claimed to be musical instrument experts,
who had come to Batumi seeking to buy violins.

A skeptical interrogator asked them if they were familiar with the
famed instrument maker Stradivarius.

One man said he had never heard of him.

The two Turks and the seller, Oniani, were convicted in September in a
Georgian court, according to officials, and sentenced to six years in
prison each.