Slovakian authorities arrested three men in connection to a plot to sell radioactive material that could have formed the core of a terrorist weapon. Two Hungarians and a Ukrainian tried to sell almost a pound of uranium powder that would have served as the center of a so-called “dirty bomb”, one that would spread radioactive material to contaminate inhabited areas. So far, the target of the trio’s marketing remains unclear:
Two Hungarians and a Ukrainian arrested in an attempted sale of uranium were peddling material enriched enough to be used in a radiological “dirty bomb,” Slovak authorities said Thursday.
First Slovak Police Vice President Michal Kopcik said the three suspects, who were arrested Wednesday afternoon in eastern Slovakia and Hungary, were peddling just under a pound of uranium in powder form that investigators believe came from somewhere in the former Soviet Union….
It remained unclear to whom the suspects were trying to peddle the material.
Four years ago, the Czechs arrested two Slovaks in a similar attempt to peddle natural depleted uranium. Given the proximity of Slovakia to the former Soviet republics, Eastern Europe clearly has become the focus of illicit nuclear-material trade. While that doesn’t necessarily narrow the list of potential buyers too far, it also doesn’t eliminate the worst of the terrorist groups, either.
How much risk is there in dirty bombs? No one really knows the answer. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a fact sheet on the technical hurdles of deploying a radiological dispersal device (RDD), and they seem very significant. Almost all of the damage would come from the explosion, not the radiation, as the explosion would disperse it so far that its effects would be minimal. An RDD would not, as commonly supposed, shut down vast swaths of a city — except through panic, which could kill commerce in an RDD-attacked area.
The biggest problem for nuclear proliferation is the transfer of weapons-grade fissile material, or a complete nuclear weapon. The uranium dust in Slovakia could not form part of either, and as Iran has amply demonstrated, getting the source material does not equate to deriving weapons-grade substances without years of effort and billions in research. In that sense, the Slovakian trade in uranium does not pose a large threat — but it certainly doesn’t make us feel safer, either.