It's the kind of scenario that fueled the novels of the late Tom Clancy: fuel that could form the core of a nuclear weapon on the black market, for sale to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, as a joint report from The Center for Public Integrity and Vice News has revealed, this fictional scenario is very real — and U.S. security officials have been in a constant state of concern about it for years.
The detailed report begins with an account of a failed attempt that occurred in Moldova in 2011 to pass off 22 pounds of highly enriched uranium for a few hundred thousand dollars. The transaction was actually a sting, and it ultimately led to the imprisonment of a Moldovan lawyer named Teodor Chetrus for attempting to smuggle the material. Chetrus's arrest, however, did nothing to ease Western worries about a terrorist group or rogue nation acquiring the ability to make their own nuclear bomb:
Instead, it stoked them, because the resulting international probe into the case has sparked fresh, and previously unreported worries, that thieves inside of Russia somehow made off years ago with a full bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium. Western spies fear the thieves have been doggedly looking for a buyer for the past sixteen years, by repeatedly dangling in front of them identical, genuine samples of that highly valuable material.
Five current or former U.S. officials who have tracked nuclear smuggling, and who declined to be named because this assessment is classified, said it is now a consensus view within the intelligence community.
But wait, it gets worse! According to this report, Western intelligence has no idea "exactly who has this nuclear explosive material, and where they may be."
Journalists Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith write that the anxieties regarding nuclear materials in the wild go back some 16 years. Since 1999, there have been at least three incidents in which "identically packaged containers of highly-enriched uranium have been seized by authorities outside of Russia."
All those packages have been forensically traced to the early 1990s and one source: the Mayak Production Association, a giant nuclear facility in the Ural Mountains.
One quote from the report ratchets up the pucker factor considerably while emphasizing exactly why this is the stuff of military suspense fiction:
While seven of those involved in the smuggling have so far been prosecuted in Bulgaria, France and Moldova, officials say they are just low-level members of a shadowy international ring with Moldovan and Russian connections, all working for a person or persons whose identity remains cloaked.
So far, efforts at stopping the spread of these materials has only taken small-time go-betweens out of commission. The masterminds are still out there.
Photos by National Archives / Flickr