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Thread: Uranium trafficking

  1. #1
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    Uranium trafficking

    One night last spring, Amiran Chaduneli, a flea-market trader in the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia, met with two strangers on a bridge at the edge of Kobuleti, a small town on the country's Black Sea coast.

    Over the phone, the men had introduced themselves as foreigners—one Turkish, the other Russian—and they were looking for an item so rare on the black market that it tends to be worth more, ounce for ounce, than gold. Chaduneli knew where to get it. He didn't know that his clients were undercover cops.

    From the bridge, he took them to inspect the merchandise at a nearby apartment where his acquaintance had been storing it: a lead box about the size of a smartphone, containing a few pounds of radioactive uranium, including small amounts of the weapons-grade material known as uranium-235. The stash wasn't nearly enough to make a nuclear weapon. But if packed together with high explosives, these metallic lumps could produce what's known as a dirty bomb—one that could poison the area around the blast zone with toxic levels of radiation.

    In the popular culture, the dealers who traffic in such cargo are usually cast as lords of war with tailored suits and access to submarines. The reality is much less cinematic. According to police records reviewed by TIME in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Chaduneli's associates in the attempted uranium sale last spring included construction workers and scrap-metal traders. Looking at the sunken cheeks and lazy left eye in his mug shot, it seems improbable that lousy capers like this one could rise to the level of a national-security threat. But the ease of acquiring ingredients for a dirty bomb is precisely what makes them so worrying.

    As the number of nuclear-armed countries has grown from at least five to as many as nine since the 1970s, the danger of World War III has been joined by a host of secondary nuclear threats. The possibility that a warhead, or the material to build one, could fall into the hands of a rogue state or terrorist helped drive President Barack Obama's deal to temporarily halt Iran's alleged weapons program. North Korea, which is now believed to have more than a dozen warheads and has been busily testing intercontinental missiles to carry them, has also been the world's most active seller of nuclear know-how. Pakistan is developing battlefield tactical nuclear weapons, which are smaller and more portable than strategic ones, even as its domestic extremist threat grows.

    The danger from dirty bombs is spreading even faster. For starters, they pose none of the technical challenges of splitting an atom. Chaduneli's type of uranium was particularly hard to come by, but many hospitals and other industries use highly radioactive materials for medical imaging and other purposes. If these toxic substances are packed around conventional explosives, a device no bigger than a suitcase could contaminate several city blocks—and potentially much more if the wind helps the fallout to spread. The force of the initial blast would be only as deadly as that of a regular bomb, but those nearby could be stricken with radiation poisoning if they rushed to help the injured or breathed in tainted dust. Entire neighborhoods, airports or subway stations might need to be sealed off for months after such an attack.

    The lasting effects of a dirty bomb make this weapon especially attractive to terrorists. Fear of contamination would drive away tourists and customers, and cleanup would be costly: the economic impact could be worse than that of the attacks of 9/11, according to a study conducted in 2004 by the National Defense University. "It would change our world," President Obama said of a potential dirty bomb in April 2016. "We cannot be complacent."

    Obama's successor is certainly alive to the nuclear threat. In a Republican primary debate in December 2015, Donald Trump said the risk of "some maniac" getting a nuclear weapon is "the single biggest problem" the country faces. But he suggested that the world would be safer if more countries acquired nukes. His Administration has yet to set out a policy for countering the danger of a dirty bomb; the position Trump takes could be crucial. By training and equipping foreign governments to stop nuclear traffickers, the U.S. has played a central role in fragile or unstable areas of the world where highly dangerous materials can fall into the wrong hands. The goal, according to Simon Limage, who led the State Department's nonproliferation efforts during the last five years of the Obama Administration, is "to push the threat away from U.S. shores."

    Georgia is one of the best examples of how these efforts have worked on the ground. Over the past 12 years, the U.S. government has provided more than $50 million in aid to help the former Soviet republic, a nation of only 3.7 million people, in combatting the trade in nuclear materials. Though it possesses no nuclear fuel of its own, Georgia sits in the middle of what atomic-energy experts sometimes refer to as the "nuclear highway"—a smuggling route that runs from Russia down through the Caucasus Mountains to Iran, Turkey and, from there, to the territory that ISIS still controls in Syria and Iraq.

    All along that route, the U.S. has helped install nuclear detectors at borders, trained police units to intercept traffickers and provided intelligence and equipment to local regulators of nuclear material. "The Americans brought all the technology," says Vasil Gedevanishvili, director of Georgia's Agency of Nuclear and Radiation Safety. "They secured every border around Georgia."

    The payoff was clear in 2016, when Georgian police busted three separate groups of smugglers for attempting to traffic in nuclear materials—a spike in arrests the region hadn't seen in at least a decade. They foiled an attempt in January to smuggle cesium-137—a nasty form of nuclear waste that could be used in a dirty bomb—across the border into Turkey. Three months later, on April 17, Georgian police caught a group of traffickers trying to sell a consignment of uranium for $200 million.

    At the end of that month, Chaduneli and four of his associates were arrested in Kobuleti by a team devoted to countering nuclear trafficking that has received training, equipment and intelligence from various arms of the U.S. government. "So in some sense this was a success story," says Limage, who met the team during a visit to Georgia in December, less than two months before he resigned from his post as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. "But none of the gains we've made with these partnerships are permanent. They're all reversible."

    And they're becoming even more essential to international security. Over roughly the past three years, as the U.S.-led coalition has advanced against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group has been shifting tactics. Rather than urging its followers to come join the fight in Syria, ISIS recruiters now call for attacks against the West using whatever weapons are available. The continued erosion of the group's territory may not make it any less dangerous. "It may make them more desperate," says Andrew Bieniawski, vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S. nonprofit that works to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons and materials. "And they may try to raise the stakes."

    There have already been plenty of signs that ISIS would like to go nuclear. After the series of ISIS-linked bombings in Brussels killed at least 32 people in March 2016, Belgian authorities revealed that a suspected member of a terrorist cell had surveillance footage of a Belgian nuclear official with access to radioactive materials. The country's nuclear-safety agency then said there were "concrete indications" that the cell intended "to do something involving one of our four nuclear sites." About a year earlier, in May 2015, ISIS suggested in an issue of its propaganda magazine that it was wealthy enough to purchase a nuclear device on the black market—and to "pull off something truly epic."

    Though the group is unlikely to possess the technical skill to build an actual nuclear weapon, there are indications it could already possess nuclear materials. After the group's fighters took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, they seized about 40 kg of uranium compounds that were stored at a university, according to a letter an Iraqi diplomat sent to the U.N. in July of that year. But the U.N.'s nuclear agency said the material was likely "low grade" and not potentially harmful. "In a sense we've been lucky so far," says Sharon Squassoni, who heads the program to stop nuclear proliferation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. "I honestly think it is only a matter of time before we see one of these dirty-bomb attacks."

    Obtaining ingredients for such a weapon is not, it turns out, the hard part. According to Chaduneli's lawyer, Tamila Kutateladze, his associates found the box of uranium in one of the scrapyards where he would find old bric-a-brac to sell. His co-defendant in the case, Mikheil Jincharadze, told police that "unknown persons" had delivered the box inside a sack of scrap iron, according to interrogation records and other court documents obtained by TIME in Georgia.

    That version of the story did not convince investigators, and even Chaduneli's lawyer wondered how such a thing could turn up in a pile of trash. "A mere mortal cannot just get his hands on this stuff," Kutateladze told TIME in her office in Tbilisi. "You have to have a source."

    But the Georgian authorities have so far been unable to determine that source with any certainty. Similar investigations in the past, most recently in 2010 and 2011, have traced the nuclear material back to reactors in Russia. Among the most famous cases involved a small-time Russian smuggler named Oleg Khintsagov, who tried to sell a sample of highly enriched uranium in 2006 to a Georgian police officer posing as a wealthy Turkish trafficker. "He said he could get much larger quantities from his sources in Siberia," recalls Shota Utiashvili, who oversaw that case as Georgia's Deputy Interior Minister at the time. "We think it's from an old stockpile of this stuff that's been laying around and periodically looking for a buyer."

    During the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s, radioactive material was frequently stolen from poorly guarded reactors and nuclear facilities in Russia and its former satellite states. Police intercepted shipments of it transiting through cities as faraway as Munich and Prague in those years, and nuclear experts believe that large batches of Soviet nuclear fuel are still unaccounted for and most likely accessible for well-connected traders on the black market.

    The potential source that most concerns investigators in Georgia is the region of Abkhazia, a Russian protectorate that broke away from Georgian control in the early 1990s. It is one of several unrecognized pseudo states—often referred to as frozen conflict zones—that Russia has helped maintain in the former Soviet space. With no internationally acknowledged borders, these regions often function as way stations for smugglers, allowing everything from guns and cigarettes to contraband caviar to be trafficked under the radar of international law. "These spaces are ungoverned," says Squassoni of CSIS. "So what we risk when we look at these conflict-torn regions is that people will try to make a living any way they can, and they may not have any scruples about what they're smuggling across these borders."

    On the border between Moldova and Ukraine is the pro-Russian enclave of Trans-Dniestr, where Moscow has stationed about a thousand troops since the region's violent split from Moldova in the early 1990s. This sliver of land along the Dniestr River was a base for one of the world's most notorious nuclear smugglers, Alexandr Agheenco, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen nicknamed the Colonel, who is wanted by U.S. and Moldovan authorities for attempting to sell weapons-grade uranium to Islamist terrorist groups in 2011. One of his middlemen was caught that year in a Moldovan sting operation; police reportedly found the blueprints for a dirty bomb in his home. But the Colonel remains at large.

    More recently, Russia has carved a fresh pair of conflict zones out of eastern Ukraine, where separatist rebels used weapons and fighters from Russia in 2014 to seize territory around the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. According to research compiled by CSIS, the war has destroyed 29 of the radiation detectors that would normally monitor the movement of nuclear material along the border between Russia and Ukraine.

    But Abkhazia is the only one of these conflict zones that has ever possessed its own nuclear facilities. Physicists recruited from Germany after World War II set up the first Soviet centrifuges at the Sukhumi Institute of Physics and Technology, which remained a key pillar in the Soviet nuclear program through the Cold War. After the fall of Soviet Union, the newly independent Georgian government fought separatists who wanted to keep Abkhazia within Moscow's orbit.

    When the civil war reached Sukhumi in 1992, its scientists set up patrols to protect their stores of radioactive material from looters and paramilitaries. The war ended the following year with Abkhazia's de facto secession from the rest of Georgia, and the fate of its nuclear stockpiles has been something of a mystery for international observers ever since.

    Officials in Russia say there is no longer any nuclear material in Abkhazia. But Georgia disputes this. Gedevanishvili, the head of the country's nuclear-safety agency, says the Sukhumi Institute still conducts experiments using radioactive sources. "We don't know what security measures they take. We know nothing about their work."
    More: Nuclear Weapons: Dirty Bombs Pose a Surprising Threat | Time.com

    Okay, first, I want to state that I disagree that the self-proclaimed republics like Pridnestrovie ("Trans-Dniestr") or my own homeland Abkhazia are "ungoverned".

    This phrase makes it seem that these are lawless territories without any kind of order in them.

    In fact, Abkhazia, for one, has a President, Raul Khajimba


    It has a parliament

    small one, with only 35 members

    but Abkhazia's population is only about 250,000.

    The members of the People's Assembly are elected by the people, like anywhere else


    Abkhazia also has courts

    police

    and military (which is integrating with the Russians: Russia and de facto Abkhazia to Combine Military Forces ? Tabula)

    as well as the SGB state security service


    It also issues its own passports, although most Abkhazians have Russian ones too, yes

    I actually still have mine, though I haven't renewed it in years lol

    What part of that is not a functionally governed state???

    This is just Georgian scaremongering, to keep Western tourists away from Abkhazia, a beautiful resort country enjoyed, right now, mostly just by Russians


    Is there smuggling and shit? yes. And Abkhazia has offered Georgia, again and again, to cooperate together to combat this issue. But the Georgians are still living in 2008 or even 1992; they refuse to talk to Abkhazia, to address her as a fellow independent nation. So, Abkhazia, in turn, says, "Fuck you, Georgia." And that's that. And, you get what you get...

    Yes, it is dangerous. All kinds of shit can get around through there. including nuclear materials. It's a huge concern. And if Georgia wants to help with this, they need to swallow their little nationalist pride, and come reconcile with Abkhazia, and work WITH (not against) them and Russia too. Then, a lid can indeed be put on this.

  2. #2
    Moderate Extremist Blues63's Avatar
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    I don't see Georgia co-operating with any pro-Russian government in the near future after the theft of the Ossetian oil fields. The hate runs deep.
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  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blues63 View Post
    I don't see Georgia co-operating with any pro-Russian government in the near future after the theft of the Ossetian oil fields. The hate runs deep.
    Lavrov, the Russian FM, was actually in Sukhum, the capital of Abkhazia, today, to open the new Russian embassy building, with Prez Khajimba and others


    Pissed off the Georgians to no end:
    Russian Foreign Minister's Planned Visit To Abkhazia Angers Tbilisi
    Tbilisi: Lavrov's Visit to Occupied Abkhazia is Continuation of Moscow's Provocative Policy - Georgia Today on the Web
    Agenda.ge - Tbilisi: Lavrov's visit to occupied Abkhazia is gross violation of law

    lol yeah, no, I hear you, they are definitely not over their loss of Abkhazia (and South Ossetia). It's a Caucasian thing, in some ways, Caucasians hold grudges for a long time, we are all known for that
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