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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sting Nets Highly Enriched Uranium

ReutersPouches said by Georgian authorities to contain highly enriched uranium.
Georgian and U.S. authorities have announced that Tbilisi had caught a Russian citizen in the act of selling weapons-grade uranium nearly one year ago, only for Russian energy officials Thursday to dismiss the claim as a "provocation."

One Russian citizen and three Georgian citizens were arrested for conspiring to sell 100 grams of enriched uranium in Georgia last February in a sting operation set up by Georgian police and aided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Georgian authorities identified the seller as Oleg Khinsagov, 50, a resident of Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. Khinsagov boasted that if the deal came off he would be prepared to sell two to three kilograms of highly enriched uranium that was stored in his apartment, The New York Times reported.

Three to four kilograms of highly enriched uranium would be sufficient to create a small implosion bomb if the bombmakers possessed a sophisticated design and production capacity, said Matthew Bunn, a senior research associate who focuses on nuclear theft and terrorism at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

A basic gun-type nuclear bomb would require at least 50 kilograms of uranium enriched to this level, Bunn said by telephone Thursday.

The sting operation was conducted by a Georgian undercover agent posing as a rich foreign buyer who made contact with the Russian seller in North Ossetia, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told The Associated Press.

After the Russian offered to sell the sample, the agent rebuffed requests that the transaction occur in North Ossetia, insisting that the Russian come to Tbilisi, The AP reported. At a meeting in Tbilisi, the man pulled out from the pocket of his jacked a plastic bag containing the material. Uranium has a low level of radioactive emission and can be transported more safely than other radioactive materials.

The man was arrested and sentenced to eight to 10 years in prison on smuggling charges while his accomplices received lesser sentences.

Both the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Energy Department assisted in the investigation.

A confidential memorandum from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, to the Georgian government said a detailed analysis had been unable to pinpoint the material's origins, though it did not rule out Russian provenance, The New York Times reported Thursday. It also estimated that the uranium had been processed more than a decade ago, the newspaper reported.

The FSB refused to comment on the case Thursday.

According to an International Atomic Energy Agency database, there have been 16 confirmed cases of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium recovered by authorities since 1993.

Russian citizen Oleg Khinsagov
Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA, said in a written statement Thursday: "Given the serious consequences of the detonation of an improvised nuclear explosive device, even small numbers of incidents involving HEU or plutonium are of very high concern."

"It is distressing when real HEU or plutonium is being offered for sale," Bunn of the Belfer Center said. While 100 grams was not enough to make a weapon, "if it is a sample of a larger cache, this is very alarming," he said.

Two Russian atomic energy officials contacted Thursday, however, said the case was a provocation by the Georgian intelligence services rather than proof of a convergence of supply and demand for weapons-grade material on the black market.

"It seems the man has been incited -- and perhaps more than once -- to find and sell" the material, said an official at the Atomic Energy Agency who declined to give his name.

The official pointed out that Georgian authorities were maintaining that the suspect, Khinsagov, was Ossetian, and that he had originally tried to sell the uranium in South Ossetia, a separatist region of Georgia.

This could reflect the Georgian authorities' desire to portray South Ossetia as a lawless region where organized crime and smuggling thrive.

The South Ossetian Foreign Ministry said in a statement released Thursday that the report was "groundless," and was calculated to cast the breakaway republic in a bad light.

Ivan Dybov, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Agency, also said the case appeared to be a provocation, but declined to elaborate.

Dybov confirmed an Interfax report quoting a source at the Federal Atomic Energy Agency who said Georgian authorities had notified Russia of the arrest and even provided a sample of the seized uranium for testing.

The quantity provided was only sufficient to establish that the material had been enriched beyond 90 percent, but not to determine its origins. The Georgians declined to provide additional material or information, Interfax reported.

Alexander Koldobsky, a nuclear materials expert at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, said Thursday that an isotopic analysis of highly enriched uranium would not specify where the material had been enriched.

U.S. scientists familiar with the results of the isotopic analysis of the seized material, carried out by the U.S. Energy Department, have said the material originated in Russia.

Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said by telephone on Thursday that the analysis listed the U-236 isotope among four isotopes. This isotope is produced in the course of enrichment of uranium that has been recovered from reactor fuel after production of plutonium in reactors.

The United States stopped using this enrichment method decades ago, but Russia used it until recently, Cochran said. This and the fact that the seized uranium was produced more than 10 years ago and seized in a former Soviet republic, indicate that it was enriched in Russia, Cochran said.