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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Friday, January 26, 2007

Nuclear blackmarket stirring back into life

LAST January, a Russian man with sunken cheeks and a wispy moustache entered Georgia and travelled to Tbilisi by car. In two plastic bags in his leather jacket, Georgian officials say, he carried 100 grams of uranium so refined that it could fuel an atomic bomb.

Oleg Khinsagov had come to meet a buyer who he believed would pay him $US1 million. The buyer would then deliver the material to a Muslim man from "a serious organisation", officials say.

The uranium was a sample, and the deal a test. If all went smoothly, the Russian had boasted, he would sell a far larger cache stored in his flat back home in Vladikavkaz, in neighbouring southern Russia: two or three kilograms, which in expert hands is enough to make a small bomb.

The buyer, it turned out, was a Georgian agent. Alerted to Khinsagov's ambitions by spies in South Ossetia, Georgian officials arrested him and confiscated his merchandise. After a secret trial, the smuggler was sentenced to 8½ years in prison.

The case has alarmed Georgian officials who thought they had suppressed the nuclear blackmarket that developed in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed. Until now, the details of the case have remained secret. But an examination of the episode, and a similar one in 2003, suggests the region's political instability and rampant corruption continue to provide a fertile breeding ground for illicit commerce in atomic materials.

Illegal trade - not just in atomic goods but everything from stolen cars to furs to counterfeit $US100 bills - thrives in Georgia, where tiny separatist regions have broken away to become lawless criminal havens.

Most worrisome, experts say, is the atomic material. In large enough quantities, it could solve the terrorist's biggest challenge in making a nuclear weapon: obtaining the fuel. The uranium seized in 2003 and 2006 had been enriched to nearly 90 per cent U-235. Too small an amount to make a bomb, but the ideal purity level for doing so.

In both cases the individuals arrested testified they had obtained the uranium through a web of Russian contacts and middlemen of various nationalities. This appears to be corroborated by a US Government laboratory analysis of the 2006 material.

Officials in Georgia, locked in a cold war with Moscow, say the cases underscore their concerns over borders, security and the fate of the breakaway regions.

Georgia's chief nuclear investigator, Archil Pavlenishvili, recalled how the Russian Government had co-operated in the early stages of the 2003 investigation. However, in 2006 it had hardly helped at all. He said the Georgians informed the Russian embassy of Khinsagov's detention, and offered to let diplomats speak to him. But the Russians never responded.

The Russian Interior Ministry and intelligence service did not respond to requests for comment.

Murat Dzhoyev, the Foreign Minister of South Ossetia, one of the separatist regions in Georgia, denied any nuclear smuggling had taken place in his region.

"As concerns their claims that contraband, or moreover, the laughable claim that nuclear materials are going through South Ossetia, that's just funny," he said. "I hope not a single serious person in the world takes this seriously."

Yesterday the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna was expected to make its first official announcement on the 2006 case.

The old Soviet empire had a vast network of nuclear facilities. After its break-up, as managers abandoned plants and security fell apart, the West grew alarmed as many cases of atomic smuggling came to light.

Since 2000, however, the former Soviet republics have set up new security precautions, often financed by the US. Washington, for instance, provided thousands of hand-held devices meant to detect radiation, and planned to spend a total of $US570 million to install small and large radiation detectors. The threat seemed to recede.

"People said, 'Hey, the situation's improved'," said William Potter, an authority on nuclear smuggling at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. The seizures in Georgia, he said, suggest something else: that the trade may "have gone under the radar".

The smuggler in the first case, an Armenian named Garik Dadayan, was arrested on June 26, 2003 in the border village of Sadakhlo. He was carrying a tea box that held 170 grams of highly enriched uranium. Georgian officials say the uranium had come from Novosibirsk, in Siberia, the site of a big Russian nuclear complex.

Investigators confirmed that before his trip into Georgia, Dadayan had travelled twice by rail from Moscow to Novosibirsk.

The smuggler told officials that he intended to sell the material to a Turkish middleman named Teimur Sadik; its ultimate destination, he said Sadik had told him, was "a Muslim man".

Dadayan was handed over to the Armenian Government, tried and sentenced to 2½ years. Sadik, Georgian authorities say, is now in the custody of the Turkish secret services.

The New York Times
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