Two kilograms from a uranium fuel rod discovered by traffic police in the trunk of a car in Izhevsk, Southern Russia, may be part of a decade old international heist from the Chepetsk Mechanical Plant, during which 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium were stolen in 1992 for resale in Europe and the Middle East.
The smuggling cartel that investigators say was behind the original theft at the plant located in the town of Glazov in the Autonomous Republic of Udmurtiya, Russia has cast their nets for potential clients and perpetrators from Russia to the Baltics, to Poland and to the Middle East. According to investigators and news reports, a multimillion-dollar deal with Iran for some of the stolen material was even brokered in Grozny, Chechnya, two years before the outbreak of open civil war there.
Nuclear scientists were quick to point out that low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be infeasible for making bombs because sophisticated, difficult to obtain equipment not to mention scientific expertise is necessary to re-enrich the uranium to truly destructive levels.
Nonetheless, the Chepetsk uranium has, for the past decade, been turning up all over, said Lyudmila Zaitseva, who is an information analyst for Stanford University’s Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources.
“Parts of the material [stolen from the Chepetsk plant] went in different directions, were seized on several occasions in Belarus, Chechnya and Lithuania. And some of it may still be coming up,” she told Bellona Web. Zaitseva added that it was “likely” that the uranium that turned up last week in Izhevsk Udmurtiya’s capital in the trunk of the car, a Zhiguli, is connected to the 1992 theft.
Traffic police in Izhevsk Wednesday told Bellona Web that the Zhiguli, allegedly driven by a 48-year-old man they would only identify as Rifkat, was stopped on June 10 for reasons police spokesmen would not specify. Russian news reports said the driver, who was employed locally in Izhevsk, was from Tatarstan, a multi-ethnic republic in Central Russia. When officers searched the trunk of the suspect’s car, they apparently found two kilograms of uranium as well as 300,000 roubles (around $9,700) that police allege was payment or partial payment for the uranium.
The material was sent to the Chepetsk Mechanical Plant which is run by Russia’s Nuclear Power Ministry (Minatom) for analysis. Tests revealed that the seized material was part of a uranium rod used as fuel at nuclear power plants, but shed no light on the origin of the rod, investigators said.
At the time of the seizure, the two kilograms of uranium were emitting 2,000 micro-roentgens per hour much higher than the background radiation level considered safe for humans a local spokesman for the Udmurtiya Federal Security Service, or FSB, said. He said the seizure was made as the result of a covert operation by security service, in cooperation with the Izhevsk police, to recover the uranium, which he said “was more than likely” connected to the 300 kilograms that went missing ten years ago.
The FSB, spokesman, who did not wish to be identified, said the suspect allegedly expected to net $50,000 from the supposedly intended sale.
“We cannot say for certain if the uranium is from [the same 1992 theft],” said the spokesman. “But we are pursuing that possibility vigorously.” He would not say if any connection between the suspect arrested last week and the original Chepetsk thieves had been established. When asked if security services had been engaged in long-term surveillance of the suspect, or if any other suspected uranium peddlers were currently on the FSB watch lists in the autonomous republic of Udmurtiya, he declined further comment.
Discovery of the 1992 theft
Stanford’s Zaitseva corroborated the suspicions of the FSB. According to her research, the theft from the Chepetsk Mechanical Plant was discovered when 300 kilograms of LEU turned up missing during an inventory in October, 1992, after Russian security services and officials from the Izhevsk Prosecutor’s Office foiled an attempt by thieves one of whom worked at the Chepetsk plant to sell 100 to 140 kilograms of the uranium.
The material stopped by the initial sting, which investigators fixed at 100 kilograms, was valued at $100,000 to $170,000 per kilogram, an official at the Udmurtiya Prosecutor’s Office, who was familiar with the aging case, told Bellona Web. However, Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former Russian nuclear regulatory official who now works with the NGO Green Cross, said the initial intercept of low-enriched uranium (LEU of 0.2 to 0.4 percent), was closer to 140 kilograms.
The remaining 160 kilograms, according to Kuznetsov’s data, have remained at large and apparently done some traveling.
Two months after the theft was discovered, Prosecutors in Udmurtiya, announced that a group of 13 people had been arrested for stealing uranium from the Chepetsk Mechanical Plant, and smuggling it into Poland, according to an Agence France Presse report of December 1992.
The lion’s share of the material prosecutors could not indicate how many kilograms that share was allegedly was sold for $700,000 per kilogram in Western Europe, its ultimate destination apparently being countries of the Middle East. Another portion of the uranium turned up in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s breakaway Republic of Chechnya, where it was eventually purchased by a group of ethnic Azeris for resale in Iran for $15 million, the spokesman for the Udmurtiya Prosecutor’s Office said Wednesday.
Buyers of un-enriched uranium-238 stolen from the Chepetsk Plant included an allegedly organized-crime group of ethnic Armenians who, in November of 1992 just a month after the theft was discovered reportedly paid 280 million old denomination rubles (about $9,000) for an unspecified amount of the material. According to JPRS-Proliferation Issues’ Nov. 24, 1992 edition, the transaction took place also in Grozny and the material was shipped to Iran.
Days earlier, Belarusian KGB officers arrested two Russians, a Belarusian and a Polish citizen after they were found in possession of 2.35 kilograms of low-enriched uranium-238, according to JPRS-Proliferation Issues’ Nov. 12 1992 edition. The periodical reported that the smugglers were part of a larger group that had stolen approximately 100 kilograms of uranium from the Chepetsk Mechanical Plant.
Then, in 1993, a Lithuanian businessman who had bought two uranium rods in hopes of selling the material abroad dumped his cache into the Nevezis river in Lithuania after he heard the original thieves had been arrested. The uranium had been stolen from the Chepetsk plant, according to Reuters.
The suspect, Raimondas Urbonas, admitted to smuggling 486 kilograms of uranium from Russia to Lithuania to be sold in Poland. Urbonas said that, afraid of being caught, he dumped the material into the river. Prosecutors believe that he was lying, and that the material had already been sold, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Security concerns at Chepetsk and beyond
All told, this litany of thefts from the Chepetsk facility points to an entire international syndicate, which comprises or once comprised Russia, Belarus, the Baltic states and Poland, and smuggles LEU to Western Europe, the spokesman for the Udmurtiya Prosecutor’s Office said.
He added, though, that last week’s comparatively paltry discovery could mean the cartel is dissolving. Indeed, according to Kuznetsov, current security at the Chepetsk Mechanical Plant is “among the best in Russia.”
“Security upgrades performed there with the help of [US Department of Defence financed Cooperative Threat Reduction Act (CTR)] came shortly after the upgrades performed at [Moscow’s] Kurchatov Institute, which are among the best anywhere,” he said in a telephone interview with Bellona Web. Granted, he said, those security upgrades did not begin for some time after the CTR Act came into existence in 1992.
Even with 300 kilograms of LEU floating around Europe and the Middle East, Kuznetsov said the best security that could have been hoped for 1992 theft is the low grade of the uranium stolen.
“You need to put the uranium in a reactor to enrich it and produce plutonium, and that’s expensive, requires specified knowledge and attracts attention,” he said.
Of special concern are the multimillion-dollar sales of some of the pinched uranium in Grozny, which authorities said were bound for Iran. The high prices paid indicate a higher grade LEU that could feasibly be burned in reactors and reprocessed for plutonium, defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said. This uranium, according to Kuznetsov, would have to be about 4 percent enriched to be used as fuel. The Stanford Database indicated that fuel of such enrichment was among that which went missing in 1992.
Russia’s Nuclear Power Ministry, Minatom, furthermore, is engaged in building a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, which the United States and Israeli governments have all but called a front for a nuclear weapons program. If burned in these reactors, this stolen LEU from Chepetsk could yield plutonium waste, Felgenhauer said.
“Perhaps [the Iranians] were putting a little something away for the future,” when their emissaries bought the LEU in 1992, Felgenhauer said.
Minatom has repeatedly insisted that the reactor project is for “peaceful purposes,” and did so again when contacted Thursday. Spokesmen refused, however, to answer questions regarding the possibility of reprocessing the stolen uranium into weapons usable material and said they would require 40 days to respond to questions regarding the decade old theft and any connection it may have to Iran.