Nuclear Booty: More Smugglers Use Asia Route


 ISTANBUL, Sept. 10 — The police in Batumi, a Black Sea port in
Georgia, heard a rumor in July that someone wanted to sell several
pounds of high-grade uranium for $100,000. The most
tantalizing aspect of the tip was that one of the sellers was
reportedly a Georgia Army officer.

 All sorts of scoundrels have tried nuclear smuggling in recent
years. Many are amateurs; most of what they try to peddle
proves useless for making bombs. 

 But the possible involvement of an army officer gave the Batumi
case a measure of deadly seriousness,  beyond its status as
another example of how the smuggling of nuclear material has
shifted to Central Asia.

 On the morning of July 20, the local antiterrorist squad burst
into a small hotel room near the port, just outside the
Turkish border. They arrested four men, including an army
captain named Shota Geladze. 

 On the floor of the room, in a glass jar wrapped in plastic,
sat nearly four pounds of enriched uranium 235, according to
Revaz Chantladze, one of the police officers. The quantity
was less than is usually required for a small atomic bomb. 

 Subsequent analysis yielded differing opinions. A Western diplomat
said the uranium probably had no value for bomb-making, but
Georgian officials called it the third seizure in two years of
uranium with potential weapons use. 

 The appearance of a relatively large quantity of uranium on the
black market in Georgia underscored American concerns that such
trafficking has shifted from Europe to the Caucasus, Central
Asia and Turkey. 

 Washington has responded by sending millions of dollars' worth
of detection equipment to several countries in the region. The
Americans are also providing training for border guards to learn
to spot illegal shipments of nuclear material, and they
helped to improve security at nuclear plants and airports.

 The region is the gateway from Russia, which has huge stocks of
nuclear material, to countries that are in the market for
weapons material. Two of them, Iran and Iraq, are trying to
develop nuclear weapons; a third, Pakistan, is expanding its
nuclear arsenal.

 Few smuggling incidents involve material that could be used to
make bombs, and intelligence officials say they know of no
successful attempt at smuggling weapons-grade material. But they
concede that the scope of smuggling remains uncertain.

 The rising number of incidents and the strong belief that only
a fraction of shipments are intercepted have raised the level
of anxiety here. The worries are heightened by the slackness of
border controls and the economic instability that has left customs
officers vulnerable to bribes.

 "The nuclear material tends to come from Russia, but once it
gets outside, the region is pretty wide open," Gary
Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms
Control in Washington, said during a trip to the region to brief
customs officials on suspected buyers.

 The International Atomic Energy Agency provided new figures on
Friday showing that the number of confirmed cases of nuclear
smuggling had fallen in the rest of the world but had risen
in Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

 Only four of the 104 cases from 1993 to 1995 occurred in this
region, the agency reported, but from 1996 to last month, 16
of the 72 cases worldwide occurred in the region. The data
covered only three weapons-related elements — uranium, plutonium
and thorium — and only incidents confirmed by the international

 Intelligence authorities said smugglers are seeking new routes out
of Russia and find their paths easier across the southern
flank. "There has, since the mid-1990's, been a shift of
smuggling to the Middle East and Asia," Alex Schmid, head of
antiterrorism for the United Nations, told a conference

 In the last eight years, there have been 104 attempts to
smuggle nuclear material into Turkey, according to an internal
report by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority. Most cases,
like those elsewhere, involved tiny amounts of radioactive
material with no weapons uses. But officials at the authority
said a handful were potentially more serious.

 In September 1998, eight people were arrested for trying to
smuggle nuclear material from Russia through Turkey to an
unknown destination. The police seized about 10 pounds of
uranium 235 and a tenth of an ounce of a plutonium mixture.

 Yasar Ozal, director of Turkey's nuclear research center, said
the plutonium and uranium were not weapons-grade material, but
appeared to be fuel pellets. Nonetheless, he said, the
appearance of plutonium on the black market was alarming.

 In another case, a Turk was arrested at the Bulgarian border
carrying a small amount of enriched uranium 235 in May 1999.
Authorities said that the quality was high and that the
material might have been a sample that he was trying to use to
drum up a larger sale.

 But Ismail Caliskan, director of Turkey's police unit fighting
smuggling and organized crime, said the danger from nuclear
smuggling had been exaggerated. Almost every incident, he said,
involved amateur criminals trying to sell radioactive
material with no weapons value. The only buyers, he said, are
undercover policemen. 

 Turkey illustrates the difficulty of monitoring borders. The
country is slightly larger than Texas and has 120 border
posts, including crossings to Iraq and Syria in the south,
Bulgaria in the northwest and Georgia, Armenia and Iran in the

 A senior customs official said only two border posts have
systems to detect radioactive material, both donated by the
United States. He asked that the locations not be identified,
but said neither is at Habur, a busy crossing between Turkey and

 Locations without detection devices rely on visual inspections,
something that can be difficult. A kilo of plutonium (2.2
pounds) is so dense it can be concealed in a container the size
of a soft-drink can.

 Some American detection equipment went to Uzbekistan, which has
hundreds of miles of border in remote deserts and mountainous
terrain. Border guards at three locations received van-sized
detection units and 30 hand-held detectors far more powerful
than Geiger counters.

 Early last month, guards at a remote Uzbek post on the border with
Turkmenistan stopped a sealed truck en route to Iran when one of
the American-supplied devices went off, according to American

 The officials said they did not know what type of material the
truck carried. They said the truck had come from Kazakhstan
and passed undetected through the checkpoint at Gisht Kuprik
on the Kazak border before being stopped in Alat.

 Another American device, on the border between Uzbekistan and
Kazakhstan, about 20 miles from Tashkent, the Uzbek capital,
detected radioactive material in March 2000 in a truckload of
scrap metal. Uzbek authorities said the truck was coming from
Kazakhstan, bound for Pakistan with 10 briefcase-sized containers
of radioactive material. The Uzbeks sent it back to Kazakhstan for
analysis of the material and a criminal investigation. 

 A Western diplomat said that when the Uzbeks stopped the
vehicle, a second truck loaded with scrap turned and went
back to Kazakhstan. 

 What followed remains a bit of a mystery and an illustration of
how regional rivalries can make it tougher to stop trafficking:
The Uzbeks complained that the radioactive material disappeared
in Kazakhstan and that no arrests were made. 

 The Kazakhstan government has a good record on trying to curb
nuclear-related smuggling. It worked closely with the United
States to protect its Soviet-era nuclear facilities, and 1,300
pounds of weapons-grade uranium was removed from the country
in 1994 by American officials.

 But Western officials said they, too, were left in the dark
about the outcome of the inquiry into the material on the
scrap-metal truck. 

 In Kazakhstan's first official explanation, Altynbek Sarsenbayev,
assistant to the president for national security, denied that
there were any briefcase-size containers. He said the problem
arose because the scrap metal was contaminated with low-level

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company