100 Grams (and Counting...): Notes from the Nuclear Underworld

  • Michael Bronner
| June 2008

This report on the 2006 seizure of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Georgia, by journalist Michael Bronner, provides new insights on both nuclear smugglers and those trying to stop them.

Bronner's account highlights the dangers posed by the toxic combination of routine smuggling, stateless zones such as Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia, and the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons. The story has a Keystone Cops quality on both sides — investigators who show up for the climax of a complex sting operation without any cash and almost lose their quarry, and a smuggler who carries HEU in plastic baggies in his pocket, and who provides his pursuers with an easily-traced landline number while chatting on his cell phone after the deal goes sour. At the same time, there are also some indications that the key smuggler, Oleg Khintsagov, may have been more than the incompetent small-time criminal he seemed: cross-examining witnesses himself, he reportedly showed an unexpected knowledge of nuclear matters, and his passport reveals travel to Syria, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.

Bronner's report gives the reader an on-the-ground perspective on a global problem of enormous stakes, and has clear policy implications. First, given how easy it is to smuggle the essential ingredients of nuclear bombs, it is crucial to secure these materials at their source. Every cache of nuclear weapons or the plutonium or HEU needed to make them worldwide must be secured — as rapidly as possible — against the kinds of threats that terrorists and criminals have shown they can pose. (For more on what needs to be done to meet that goal, see the Securing the Bomb series, available at Second, in this case, success in stopping nuclear smuggling came from old-fashioned police work — including stings based on tips from organized criminals in the breakaway zone. Third, radiation detection did not work — the smugglers easily bypassed radiation detectors at the Russian-Georgian border, with the help of a relative who was a retired customs officer. Fourth, the account suggests that some significant part of the nuclear smuggling danger may be from material stolen long ago — a part of the problem that nuclear security upgrades installed in the future will not solve. In particular, the Georgian and Russian investigations offer at least suggestive indications that the HEU may have come from the huge fuel fabrication facility at Novosobirsk, perhaps as long ago as 2000. Together, these points make a strong case for expanded international police and intelligence cooperation, including operations such as stings, as a key part of reducing the chance that the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons could fall into terrorist hands.

More broadly, Bronner's account highlights the urgency of the threat of nuclear theft and smuggling, and the dangerous gap that still exists between that threat and the scope and pace of the U.S. and international response. Many nuclear facilities around the world do not have security measures that could protect against demonstrated terrorist and criminal capabilities. Only about a quarter of the world's HEU-fueled research reactors have had all their highly enriched uranium removed, leaving a major gap to be closed. There are currently no specific and binding global nuclear security standards in place.

Stronger efforts are needed to get countries to sustain upgraded security for the long haul, and to convince those who work with nuclear materials never to cut corners on security. The United States should expand its efforts to completely remove nuclear weapons and potential nuclear bomb material from as many facilities worldwide as possible. These efforts should be a top priority for the next U.S. administration.

In the meantime, the world urgently needs more of this kind of in-depth analysis of the most important nuclear smuggling cases, to explore patterns, trends, interconnections, and lessons learned.

— from Preface written by Matthew Bunn.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bronner, Michael. “100 Grams (and Counting...): Notes from the Nuclear Underworld.” , June 2008.

The Author