The Georgian government is charging an undisclosed number of individuals with criminal conduct in connection with a thwarted attempt to sell highly enriched uranium on the black market in Tbilisi.
Zaal Lomtadze, head of the Georgian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources’ Nuclear and Radiation Safety Service, told EurasiaNet.org that police took possession of highly enriched uranium (HEU) during a March 13 sting operation in the Georgian capital. Lomtadze did not disclose how much radioactive material was seized in the sting.
Official charges have been filed in connection with the case, stated Shota Utiashvili, head of the Georgian Ministry of the Interior’s Information and Analysis Department. He would not specify the charges, or the number of individuals facing prosecution.
Lomtadze would not reveal how radioactive the seized material is. Citing unnamed Georgian government sources, an April 13 blog report by The Guardian stated that the HEU was "over 70 percent enriched," which would be of high enough quality to create a crude nuclear bomb.
The Georgian government currently has the seized HEU in "a secure location." Lomtadze said that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] has been notified about the seizure, but IAEA officials refused to comment to EurasiaNet.org about the investigation.
The materials’ possible provenance remains a tightly guarded secret. Answering a reporter’s question at The Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, on April 15, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili implied that the HEU is somehow connected with Russia and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- areas that he termed "black holes."
"[Y]ou can assume from where they were coming," Saakashvili said. "One thing I can say, they were not coming from Australia, and they were not coming from some other place, from Norway, for instance."
"Fact is that once there were multiple attempts, there were these things going around in that region and we all should be vigilant," Saakashvili continued, without specifying the region. "We are very well equipped, but black holes ... nobody can guarantee it fully."
Russian officials have denied any involvement in the HEU smuggling, the Associated Press has reported.
Nuclear material enriched "beyond a certain grade" carries a "fingerprint" that can reveal its point of origin, Lomtadze asserted. Based on fingerprints obtained from HEU seized during previous police operations, Georgian officials know that the material is coming from various locations, he said. The fingerprint of the HEO batch seized during the March 13 operation has not been determined yet, Lomtadze stated.
Georgia does not have the necessary laboratories for fingerprinting HEU, but has worked in collaboration with the IAEA and the US government, among other partners, to analyze materials seized in the past.
US embassy spokesperson Karen Robblee did not provide any indication that US government representatives were involved in the current HEU investigation. She stated that the March sting operation was a "Georgian seizure," and added that the US government is "thankful for the effort" Georgia has made to secure nuclear materials.
Washington has equipped 11 Georgian border crossings, two seaports, two airports, and one training center with "portal monitors" to "detect, interdict, and deter illicit trafficking of special nuclear and other radioactive materials."
Over the past 10 years, according to Lomtadze, there have been eight confirmed attempts to smuggle HEU through Georgia. "[We] are in possession of every means to stop this ... and I don’t think there are cases which are smuggled that are not known," he said. He added that officials cannot control borders in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In 2006, another sting operation resulted in the seizure of 100 grams of HEU from a North Ossetian smuggler, who had taken the materials through a border checkpoint high in the mountains that separate Russia’s North Ossetia from Georgia. [For details, see the EurasiaNet archive].
Lomtadze noted that Georgian officials encounter a couple of smuggling attempts of potential dangerous substances every year, but "only the lesser part" of them involves radioactive materials. The frequency of the attempts indicates that there is likely an "organized" effort to smuggle HEU through Georgia, he said.
"This is not an isolated case of one person or one group," Lomtadze said. "So we have to be careful and pay attention to this."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Joshua Kucera in Washington, DC contributed reporting to this story.