Nuclear Proliferation Concerns Rising: Focus on the Former Soviet Republics

Posted on August 25, 2010


Prior to the primaries this week, authorities in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova had intercepted the sale of some “yellow cake,” the kind of material Saddam Hussein was seeking in the old Chemical Warfare days.  Yellow cake is an inert form of uranium that has to be enriched to become weapons grade. It is the buyer that authorities are seeking.  The capabilities of the buyer will determine the  ultimate seriousness of this incident. What is clear is that, as feared, the breakup of the former Soviet Union has created the possibilities for a nuclear nightmare as materials more potent than yellow cake and possibly at risk for theft remain scattered throughout the former republics.  The countries to watch:

Russia
Georgia
Ukraine
Moldova
Belarus
Armenia
Azerbaijan
Kazakhstan
Uzbekistan
Turkmenistan
Kyrgyzstan
Tajikistan
Estonia3
Latvia3
Lithuania3

Tipped off in early July, authorities discovered the Uranium 238, known as yellowcake, in a garage in the former Soviet republic’s capital of Chisinau on July 20, said Kirill Motspan, director of the ministry’s press office.

The smugglers were trying to traffic the uranium with an intent to sell it for more than $11 million. Authorities are still trying to determine the uranium’s origin — Moldova does not produce uranium — and its intended destination.

However, yellowcake — a coarse, poisonous powder that gets its name for its often yellow color — cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb.

It is the most commonly occurring found form of uranium and is not a fissile substance, meaning that it must be enriched in an “elaborate set-up” before it can be used for nuclear weapons, said Xiachun He, a professor of nuclear physics at Georgia State University in the United States.

The uranium 238 alone is not even potent enough to make an effective dirty bomb, the physicist said, since the level of radiation would be too low once scattered as dust.

Motpan said it was his understanding that 1 kilo of uranium costs $6.3 million on the black market and that is what the smugglers were expecting to get.

“Apparently, you can’t make anything serious out of this modest amount of radioactive material,” Motpan said. “But they were actively looking for a customer.”

Acting as buyers, undercover policemen acquired less than one gram of the substance and sent it to the United States for analysis, which confirmed that it was uranium 238, he said. [CNN]