In early February 2006, Oleg Khintsagov left his apartment in southern Russia with 80 grams of highly enriched uranium stuffed in his pocket and a plan to make a million dollars. After slipping past border guards in neighboring Georgia, he traveled to the capital, Tbilisi, to meet a buyer who claimed he was from "a serious Muslim organization." If the buyer was satisfied with the bomb-grade quality of this small sample, Khintsagov promised more.
The "serious Muslim organization," however, turned out to be a Georgian government agent: While casting about for a buyer on previous trips, Khintsagov had become the target of an elaborate sting operation that involved the FBI, the US Department of Energy and police in the Republic of Georgia. He was arrested, tried in secret and sentenced to eight and a half years in prison.
Media and government reports often refer to "highly-enriched" and "weapons-grade" uranium, sometimes interchangeably. But in fact the terms have different meanings that shouldn't be confused: "Weapons-grade" refers to a level of enriched uranium that is capable of being used in an atomic bomb; "highly-enriched" refers only to the fact that uranium has been enriched at least 20 percent, not necessarily enough to be used in a bomb.
Alexander Melishkivili, a policy analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, says that interchanging the two descriptions can be highly misleading, and can exaggerate unnecessarily the threat posed by reported incidents of uranium trafficking. "The threat is there," says Melishkivili, "but it's not helpful to fan the flames of hysteria."
Uranium straight out of the ground is composed almost entirely of a relatively heavy isotope called U-238. Nuclear fission requires the presence of a highly-reactive isotope called U-235, which appears in negligible quantities in raw uranium. Enrichment involves depleting the concentration of U-238 isotopes, and dramatically increasing the concentration of U-235 isotopes. An enrichment level of 5 to 20 percent is necessary to fuel a power plant; enrichment of at least 85to 90 percent is needed to fuel a nuclear weapon.
An enrichment plant requires expensive specialized equipment, much of which is subject to multilateral export controls. But once up and running, the same technology that increases the concentration of U-235 isotopes to a level high enough to fuel a power plant can also be used to increase the concentration to a level suitable for use in nuclear weapons. It's a question of intent.
Next time you encounter a uranium salesman, or more likely a reference to it in the media, here's a handy reference guide:
- Raw uranium is composed of 0.7 percent U-235.
- Low-enriched uranium, used in power plants, is enriched to less than 20 percent U-235.
- Highly-enriched uranium, used in research reactors for medicine, engineering and other specialized civilian applications, is enriched to between 20 and 90 percent U-235.
- Weapons-grade uranium, used in bombs and in some civilian reactors, is enriched to over 90 percent U-235.
News stories occasionally report that a smuggler was caught with "enough enriched uranium for a dirty bomb," or radiological dispersal device. But these use conventional weapons technologies to spread radioactive material over a large area, and do not use uranium.
Instead, the radioactive ingredient in a dirty bomb would more likely be cesium-137 or strontium-90. Smuggling incidents involving these materials are not recorded on the IAEA list of "proliferation-significant" events.
The story of Oleg Khintsagov encapsulates the threat from smugglers carrying nuclear material across the porous borders of the former Soviet Union. This type of nuclear smuggling is a staple of Hollywood films and is often cited as the most dangerous source of nuclear proliferation.
But the Khintsagov case illustrates something else: that nearly all reported smuggling cases of fissile material involve low-level figures and only minute amounts of radioactive material - nowhere close to enough fuel to make a bomb.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Moscow lost direct control over a vast nuclear weapons infrastructure. In 1992, in response to the perceived threat from this material getting into the wrong hands, the International Atomic Energy Agency created the Illicit Trafficking Database to track incidents of nuclear smuggling.
Today, when one imagines the threat posed by nuclear smuggling, it is the cases in this database, many of them widely reported by the press, on which those fears are based. Khintsagov was one of the most recent* smuggling incidents reported on the database. We conducted a review of what those cases tell us about the threat from smuggled plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, the essential ingredients of a nuclear bomb. We found that the cumulative total of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium seized by law enforcement since 1992 is not enough to manufacture one bomb.
Of 18 cases listed on the database, only 13 actually involved smuggling. The remainder were: two cases of missing material from nuclear power facilities, in Japan and New Jersey; radioactive material, including highly enriched uranium, stored in a bank vault in Lithuania; and two cases from Germany, one involving scrap metal contaminated with trace amounts of uranium and the other an apparently accidental theft of a vial containing .001 gram of plutonium.
Of the 13 smuggling incidents, none of the individuals arrested have been linked to a larger terrorist or rogue state smuggling network, according to William Potter, one of the leading experts on the status of the former Soviet nuclear facilities and director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
The bulk of cases, nine out of 13, occurred in the years immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union, between 1992 and 1995. No incidents were reported to the IAEA between 1996 and 1998. Since 1999, reports have been less frequent and involved smaller quantities of fissile material than previously.
"There's been a lull in nuclear smuggling activity," says Potter. "The question that is important to address is: Is this apparent lull a function of more effective security or simply the rise of more clever nuclear smugglers, and decisions by governments not to report incidents to the IAEA?"
Potter and other experts we consulted identified additional common characteristics of those cases on the IAEA list:
- Most of the uranium seized has not been enriched enough for use in weapons. Only three cases involved uranium enriched to more than 90 percent, the critical level for use in a nuclear weapon. Four other cases involved tiny amounts of plutonium, a fissionable material that results from the enrichment of uranium, and also has either energy or military application.
- Since 1992, seizures by law enforcement amount to 3.3 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium and 370 grams of plutonium - which cumulatively are not enough to manufacture one bomb. That requires at minimum some 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent or eight kilograms of plutonium, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
- Arrests in at least five, or nearly 40 percent, of the incidents were made as the result of sting operations by Georgian, Russian, German and U.S. law enforcement - creating what Rensellaer Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, calls "an artificial market for nuclear material."
All experts concede that what we don't know, of course, is how many smugglers have evaded interception. As Lee, who has been studying the nuclear and narcotics black markets for more than 20 years, puts it: "By definition, successful transactions are not going to come to light. They're going to remain in the shadows. What we don't know, what we don't see, is what worries me most."
But evidence increasingly suggests that groups or countries that want nuclear bombs are not trying to smuggle in fuel. Instead, they are working to get the technology to manufacture their own fuel.
There are 11 countries which are now capable of enriching uranium (not including Iran). Nuclear energy requires enrichment of up to 20 percent; bombs require at least 90 percent. [see box] But expanding from energy-level to bomb-level enrichment is a far less complex enterprise than developing the enrichment capability itself. Tariq Rauf, chief of Verification and Security for the IAEA, says that the spread of enrichment technology has the potential to create a new cadre of "latent nuclear powers."
Developing the technology to enrich uranium, says David Albright, a former nuclear inspector in Iraq and now president of the Institute for International Science and Security, "is a trade that's very different than walking into some back alley and buying something. It involves people typically who are very successful businessmen who just want more. And so you have a situation where what you and I would view as respectable businessmen are going about selling the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons."
* The only more recent case occurred in March 2007, when a steel tube in Germany, part of a load of scrap metal, was discovered to contain a trace amount of highly enriched uranium.