|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Nukes over NYC
BATUMI, 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
The encounter, which took place in April, reflected a fear shared by
U.S. 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 U.S. 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."
U.S. efforts to prevent smuggling have prioritized bomb-grade material
because of the potential that a nuclear bomb could flatten a U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. is supporting.
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 Georgia.
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 authorities.
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
The Georgian smuggling cases suggest that the trade in radioactive
materials is driven at least in part by poverty and the lingering legacy
of Soviet corruption in a hardscrabble region. Georgian officials say
that because of U.S. backed counter-smuggling efforts, organized crime
groups seem to have concluded that the potential profit from trade in
these materials doesn't justify the risk. But individuals sometimes
conclude they can make a quick buck from radioactive material.
For instance, in one newly disclosed case last year, authorities
arrested two Georgian men with firearms, TNT and a lethal quantity of
cesium-137. One was a former Soviet officer in an army logistics unit,
who told police that at the end of his service in the early 90s, he had
made a second career stealing from the military.
"He openly said: 'I was a logistics officer and my second duty was to
steal everything possible," according to Pavlenishvili.
The man kept the cesium for years before he and a relative tried to sell
it last year to a Georgian undercover officer. He did not try to sell
the weapons or explosives.
Poverty and corruption also appear to have played into three smuggling
incidents in 2003, 2006 and 2010 that involved bomb-grade highly
In 2003, an Armenian man, Garik Dadaian, was arrested when he set off a
radiation detector provided by an American program at a checkpoint on
the Armenian-Georgian border. Days later, the man was released and
returned to Armenia under murky circumstances.
Dadaian's name resurfaced in 2010 on a bank transfer slip in the pocket
of the two smugglers arrested with highly enriched uranium. The men had
obtained the material from Dadaian and were offering it as a sample of a
larger quantity. Police say forensic analysis suggests the uranium may
have come from the same batch seized in 2003.
Hrant Ohanian, the former physicist at a nuclear research facility in
Yerevan, Armenia, at a prison in Rustavi, Georgia in June, 2012. He was
one of two smugglers arrested with highly enriched uranium in 2010.
(Photo: Shakh Aivazov, AP)
Russian investigators suspected Dadaian got the nuclear fuel from a
manufacturing plant in Novosibirsk, Russia, where several disappearances
of material have been documented. Pavlenishvili said Dadaian bribed
prosecutors to win his release and take some of the uranium.
The two smugglers in the 2010 case were Sumbat Tonoyan, a dairy farmer
who went bankrupt, and Hrant Ohanian, a former physicist at a nuclear
research facility in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. The AP interviewed
both at a prison about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Tbilisi, where
they are serving sentences of 13 and 14 years.
In separate interviews, each man blamed the other for the idea of
smuggling uranium, and talked of financial hardship. Ohanian said his
daughter needed urgent medical care that he couldn't afford, and Tonoyan
said a bank had seized his house after his dairy factory collapsed.
"I didn't have a job and I couldn't pay the bank," he said in Russian
through an interpreter.
The men also claimed they believed the material they were selling was to
be used for scientific work, not nefarious purposes. Ohanian said a
Georgian contact, who was also arrested, told him relations with Moscow
were so bad that Georgian scientists could not get the uranium they
needed from Russia on the open market.
"I feel guilty because I behaved like an idiot," he said. "I should have
known and I would never do something like this again."
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