MOSCOW — The police in Moldova said Wednesday that they had arrested six people involved with a criminal group that said it was dealing in smuggled nuclear materials and was active in the former Soviet Union and in Arab countries.
The group had been negotiating the sale of uranium, police officials said in a statement and in remarks reported by news agencies, and the authorities suggested that the material had come from Russia.
Some of the suspects were arrested while they were carrying a lead canister, the authorities said. In a video released to the news media, police officers wearing gloves showed how a Geiger counter clicked rapidly when brought near the dull gray metal tube. The police said the contents of the tube would be sent for analysis.
Though associated with the chaos of the immediate years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, reports of nuclear smuggling in the former Eastern bloc continue to this day, and are no less ominous for the number of false alarms that are raised from time to time. Last year, for example, the Moldovan authorities arrested members of a group that was selling what turned out to be only slightly radioactive uranium.
The prevalence of these cases, including frauds and other scams, illustrates the difficulties associated with the legacy of the loosely guarded Soviet weapons program.
The Moldovan authorities said that the suspects, who included four Moldovans, one Russian and one resident of the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria in eastern Moldova, had sought a buyer for what the suspects said was bomb-grade uranium, Western and Russian news agencies reported.
The gang thought it was negotiating with a North African buyer who turned out to be an undercover security agent, according to the police and the news agency reports. They gang’s members had sought to sell uranium that they said was enriched to an unspecified refinement of the isotope 235 for between $29 million and $144 million per kilogram, the police statement said.
In the video released by the police, a man is seen apparently discussing the deal in a shabby courtyard of a home as laundry flapped in the background and a rooster could be heard crowing.
At another point, the tape cuts to a man, speaking in Russian, who is talking about the price for a sale in euros.
“The usual price is 100 million, but we decided on 20, do you understand?” the man said. The video shows police officers in black balaclavas shoving men onto the floor and against a wall. Later, a Russian-speaking woman is seen sitting handcuffed in a chair.
“Where do you live?” an interrogator asked.
“Where, well, in Russia,” the woman said.
The Russian Information Agency, a state news agency, said that the Moldovan authorities had cooperated in the investigation with security services in Germany, Ukraine and the United States.
Vitalie Briceag, an official with the Moldovan Interior Ministry, said the smugglers told the Moldovan police that they could provide an advance shipment of one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of uranium, which was apparently the material in the lead cylinder, The Associated Press reported.
It was unclear how much the group claimed to possess, how much the authorities had seized or whether the uranium really was of bomb-grade quality.
Moldova is the poorest state in Europe and is locked in a two-decade struggle with the Transnistrian region that borders Ukraine. Moldovan officials have tried to draw international attention to this little-noted conflict by painting the separatists as arms dealers and smugglers.
The International Energy Agency considers 25 kilograms, or about 55 pounds, sufficient to make a bomb. A spokesman for the agency did not return a call late on Wednesday. The press office of the National Nuclear Security Agency in the United States said officials authorized to comment on the report were traveling on Wednesday and could not be reached.
Though acknowledging the grave concern over the security of nuclear materials after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian officials have more recently dismissed the prospect of fissile uranium or plutonium disappearing from their military warehouses or arsenals.
“The Russian government approaches this issue seriously,” Fyodor A. Lukyanov, the editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said in a telephone interview. “Even in the 1990s, when the situation was qualitatively worse, nothing happened with the exception of a few isolated incidents.”
In a 1994 episode recounted in “The Dead Hand,” a book by David E. Hoffman about the race to secure the former Soviet Union’s weapons, a man in Germany was arrested after the police found plutonium in his garage.
That touched off a decade of high-level apprehension in Washington about loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union that seemed ripe with potential for a nuclear attack by terrorists. A program financed by American taxpayers has spent about $1.4 billion annually to secure nuclear materials here.
Confirmed cases of smuggling have continued, nonetheless. In 2006, the Georgian authorities arrested a man carrying 100 grams of bomb-grade uranium in a plastic bag in his coat pocket. He had come to Georgia, also by way of an area at the time that was a separatist region supported by Russia, believing that he would meet a buyer from the Middle East. That buyer also turned out to be an undercover agent.
Bron: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/world ... .html?_r=1