23 May 2007 11:21

Russian caught trying to sell enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow

Published: 26 January 2007

An international nuclear smuggling scandal erupted yesterday after it was revealed that a Russian man has been caught selling weapons-grade uranium on the open market that could easily be used in a small nuclear bomb.

The man, named as 50-year-old Oleg Khinsagov, was arrested in a "sting" operation orchestrated by the FBI and the Georgian secret service last year, though details have only just become public.

The scandal raises fresh questions about the security of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union and is embarrassing for the Kremlin, which has repeatedly claimed to have broken the illicit trade in nuclear components.

Mr Khinsagov, who has since been sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison, was arrested in Georgia with 100 grams of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium casually wrapped in a plastic bag in his jacket pocket.

He believed he had found a buyer willing to pay him $1m (500,000) for the uranium, which had probably been stolen from a military or research facility somewhere in the former USSR.

American nuclear experts have claimed that the uranium originated within Russia itself, though Russian scientists have claimed it is "impossible" to determine its origin. The buyer was in fact an undercover Georgian agent who told Mr Khinsagov that he was a Muslim working for "a serious organisation".

For Mr Khinsagov, ostensibly a trader specialising in fish and sausages, that was good enough and he had boasted that the 100 grams was merely a "sample". Back at his flat in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia, he claimed to have a further four kilos of uranium.

Such an amount would have been enough to build a small nuclear bomb: the Hiroshima bomb contained about 50 kilos of a similar grade of uranium.

Three Georgian accomplices were arrested and sentenced to up to five years in jail. Non-proliferation experts have labelled the incident as one of the most serious in recent years.

"Given the serious consequences of the detonation of an improvised nuclear explosive device, even a small number of incidents involving HEU [highly-enriched uranium] or plutonium are of very high concern," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Georgian Interior Minister, Ivane Merabishvili, said the case illustrated the grave risk posed by nuclear trafficking in an age of international terrorism.

The biggest danger, he said, were people "in Russia and Georgia and everywhere else, even in America, who will sell this radioactive material" for millions of dollars.

Russia has confirmed the basic details of the case but has suggested that Georgia's decision to disclose its sensational details now has more to do with politics that a genuine concern for nuclear non-proliferation. The two countries are locked in a mutually damaging row aggravated by the fact that Georgia is run by a US-educated pro-Western President, Mikhail Saakashvili, who is perceived to be anti-Russian.

Laboratories in both the US and Russia have confirmed that the substance seized was indeed highly enriched weapons-grade uranium and that it was processed about 10 years ago.

According to researchers at Stanford University, about 40 kilos of uranium and plutonium was smuggled out of research and military facilities in the former Soviet Union in the past decade. The Kremlin begs to differ. It claims that the majority of uranium stolen was not weapons-grade and that most of it has been tracked down.

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