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17 Apr, 2009 06:57

The price of mass destruction

Ukraine’s security service has arrested a group suspected of trying to sell a container of radioactive material.

Officials say there was enough of the substance to create a dirty bomb, which could have posed a serious threat to the entire region.

The deal for the material going down in Ukraine’s Ternopol was alleged to be some $10 million.

The country’s security service the SBU caught them trying to sell almost four kilograms of highly dangerous radioactive material.

“The members of this group were actively looking for ways of selling the radioactive material. The substance has been passed to the Emergency Control Ministry. There is plutonium 239 in the container, say experts,” reported Valentin Nalivaichenko, the Chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine.

Later, the SBU said that it was not plutonium, which is a component of a nuclear bomb, but another substance analysts say was still enough to build a powerful dirty bomb.

“Dirty bombs and nuclear weapons are not the same thing. But dirty bombs could be made out of practically any material which emits gamma radiation,” explained Olga Koshanaya from Ukraine’s Nuclear Safety Council

Over the last three years, there have been more than three dozen such cases in the country, raising the question seriously worrying nuclear watchdogs: where do smugglers get their material from?

Ukraine lost its status of a nuclear weapons state shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 1996 most of its arsenal was removed and IBMs dismantled. However, experts believe this does not necessarily mean that there are no loose nuclear materials available in the country.

The Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 led to a massive leak of radioactive substances into the black market. The authorities later tightened their grip on the 30-kilometer exclusion zone and practically ceased illegal nuclear operations in Chernobyl.

The turbulence of the 1990s still provided rich pickings for merchants of death.

Olga Koshanaya said that “The smugglers are selling nuclear materials they acquire from different sources not registered by nuclear security agencies. Those are factories and plants which went bankrupt in the 1990s and there was not enough money back then to remove dangerous materials from such facilities.”

The same goes for Georgia, Belarus and other post-Soviet republics, which have been at the centre of nuclear smuggling incidents in the last decade.

Kiev’s nuclear watchdog says it has created an efficient system to register all radioactive materials in the country, which they hope will make it tougher for illegal traffickers.

They admit that eradicating all sources of available nuclear materials in the post-Soviet space will take many years, and cost great sums of money.