Worker from Ukraine’s German embassy busted at home for smuggling nuclear materials

Tukish officials set up a sting operation to bust Russian nationals selling uranium in Istanbul

Publish date: July 8, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

A worker at Ukraine's embassy in Germany was arrested on charges of attempted smuggling of million of dollars worth of radioactive materials in the Ukrainian city of Cherkassy, Russian and German media reported Monday.

The bust comes quick on the heels of reports issued by Great Britain and the United States that Russia and former Soviet Republics, because of their vast unsecured nuclear stockpiles, remain among the most threatening nations to Western security interests – a blow to both international nonproliferation efforts, specifically US programmes that have been geared toward putting a damper on such incidents since the early 1990s.

The alleged smuggler and a security manager of a local Cherkassy bank were detained in the central Ukrainian city with radioactive metals in their possession estimated to be worth $4.9 million (€3.1 million), Ukrainian police told Russia’s Interfax news agency.

According to reports, the two suspects had been transporting uranium and cesium in an automobile, Deutsche Welle said.

The confiscated radioactive elements were believed to have been removed from a special holding facility in the Ukrainian capital Kiev for sale to an organized crime group, according to police reports released after the bust of the alleged smugglers.

The police did not make clear where the pair intended to transfer the materials, said Deutche Welle.

Nuclear materials left behind in Ukraine
As a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited a massive nuclear arsenal and substantial reserves of radioactive materials including weapons-grade materials.

Kiev formally rejected the use or storage of nuclear weapons in 1994, but since then much the country’s atomic arms research and development infrastructure has remained operational, though nearly always under funded and poorly-secured.

See no evil, hear no evil
Though national officials sometimes trumpet their interventions in nuclear smuggling cases, it is unlikely, according to experts who track nuclear smuggling, that the arrests outweigh the amount of nuclear material that slips through many of the US funded dragnets for preventing nuclear smuggling.

“The safeguards are only as good as those who are operating them,” said one US Department of Energy official on Monday, who asked that his name be withheld. The DOE and other American nonproliferation programmes have spent millions of dollars since the fall of the Soviet Union to safeguard nuclear stockpiles and install warning devices and accounting systems to countermand the eventuality of smuggling.

But the DOE official, as well as many nonproliferation groups, have pointed the fact that nearly half of Russia’s stockpile remains unsecured.

One smuggler out of 10 caught
“For every one of these smugglers we bust, there could be as many as 10 or more who slip through the cracks in the system.

Recent US State departments studies, as well as efforts by the government of the former republic of Georgia, have tried to deal with nuclear trading in the unclaimed and lawless republic of Southern Ossetia, which serves as a kind of no man’s land bazaar between Russia and Georgia trade in everything from stolen cars to caviar to weapons.

But Russia is reluctant, according to Georgian officials, to acknowledge the problem. Two months ago, two Russian men, better known for smuggling drugs and small arms, we caught by Georgian officials transporting some 2 kilograms of enriched uranium to Turkey that had come from a facility deep in Siberia.

Russia refused to acknowledge that any of their Siberian facilities had reported the uranium missing and insisted that the Russian smugglers must have obtained the material from elsewhere, even though tests conducted by Georgian nuclear officials fixed the uranium as being of Russian origin.

Georgia alone in closing smuggling corridor

Georgian police said at the time that the biggest impediment to stopping the nuclear trade through Southern Ossetia was the unwillingness of Russia security forces to admit nuclear smuggling was indeed a problem.

“If Moscow turns a blind eye to it, then it is not happening – and thus becomes our problem,” said one Georgian investigator at the time, according to Georgian media.

Ukraine’s present government has argued its controls over nuclear materials meet international standards. International safety monitors however have questioned the claims citing poor Ukrainian accounting for nuclear materials, and corruption among government employees.