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Georgia: Uranium Case Underscores Nuclear-Safety Fears

Oleg Khinsagov was caught trying to sell highly enriched uranium (ITAR-TASS) January 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow and Tbilisi have traded harsh words after Georgia revealed it had arrested a Russian man last year trying to sell weapons-grade uranium.

The incident marks a new low in already strained Russian-Georgian relations and raises fresh fears worldwide that some of Russia's huge nuclear stockpiles could fall into terrorist hands.

Last February in Tbilisi, a Georgian undercover agent, aided by the CIA, posed as a rich foreign buyer interested in purchasing weapons-grade uranium for a Muslim man from "a serious organization."

The mission: seize Oleg Khinsagov, a Russian man trying to sell a small amount of highly enriched uranium, and confiscate his merchandise.

The operation was a success and Khinsagov was sentenced to 8 and 1/2 years in prison.

Although the purity of the uranium seized is ideal for making nuclear weapons, the quantity is too small. A nuclear bomb requires at least 15 kilograms of highly enriched uranium.

Both the trial and the incident itself were kept secret until Thursday (January 26), when Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who was visiting Washington this week, revealed the case in comments published by U.S. media.

Reasons For Disclosure

So why is Tbilisi making the incident public now, almost one year after it occurred?

Nikoloz Rurua, the deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament's Committee for Defense and Security, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that there had been "a request by our American colleagues -- not to publicize this information due to certain considerations related to the operation."

"I cannot say more about this. It was their request, and we complied with it. This applied to a particular period of time, which has now passed, and we -- the country on whose soil this legal violation took place -- naturally made this information public," Rurua said.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, however, had a different story. He said he was revealing the case out of frustration with Russia's lack of cooperation in the investigation that followed the arrest.

According to him, Russia hampered Georgia's attempts to determine whether Khinsagov had access to larger quantities of uranium, as he had boasted prior to his detention.

New Russia-Georgia Spat

Russian authorities confirmed the arrest, but struck back by saying Georgia prevented Russia from identifying the substance's country of origin by presenting a sample too small to work with. He accused Georgia of failing to provide a larger sample despite repeated requests.

South Ossetia is a haven for smuggling (TASS)

The Khinsagov case has also revived tensions over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Georgian separatist republics backed by Moscow.

Merabishvili said the Russian smuggler came to Georgia's attention during an investigation into what he called extensive smuggling networks in and around the breakaway border regions.

The incident has once again prompted calls in Georgia for international observer missions in both regions, a proposal that Tbilisi has been pushing in past months.

"Any uncontrolled territory represents dangers not only for the country within which this territory lies, but for the international community as a whole,'' deputy Rurua said. "We believe this is a crucial reason for the international community to take the resolution of problems in the Tskhinvali region and in Abkhazia seriously."

Nuclear Safety Fears

The international community, however, seems more concerned about how 100 grams of nuclear-bomb grade uranium fell into the hands of a 50-year-old Russian trader, who specialized in fish and sausages.

Speaking today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Muhammad el-Baradei reiterated the urgency of joining forces in preventing rogue states from obtaining material for nuclear weapons.

The incident is reminiscent of a similar case in 2003, when Georgian border guards caught an Armenian man with about 170 grams of highly enriched uranium. According to Georgia, the man said the uranium came from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, home to a major nuclear complex.

A number of experts say Khinsagov, too, is likely to have obtained uranium in Russia, where a nuclear black market emerged from the chaos that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Efforts To Be Safe

But Ivan Safranchuk, who heads the Moscow office of the U.S.-based Center for Defense Information, says getting hold of highly enriched uranium in Russia is not that easy.

"Over the past nine years, serious efforts have been made to improve the system of physical protection and security of nuclear facilities, both military and civilian. So in my opinion, obtaining nuclear substances in Russia is extremely difficult. Today, if I were a terrorist seeking nuclear substances, I would go to Pakistan, not Russia," Safranchuk says.

Former Soviet countries have indeed taken steps towards boosting nuclear security, often financed by the West.

Russia, in particular, says it is actively cooperating with other nations, including the United States, to combat nuclear proliferation.

But Vladimir Chuprov, the chief nuclear expert at Greenpeace's Russian office, says security at Russian nuclear facilities remains deplorable.

"In Russia, the physical defense and security of radioactive material doesn't meet the required standards. In 2002, a group of Greenpeace activists, together with journalists and a State Duma deputy, entered without difficulties the territory of the national stockpile of wasted nuclear fuel, climbed on the roof of the stockpile's building complex, shot photographs and videos, and quietly left. Nine months later, the Federal Security Service repeated the same experience. Nothing had changed," Chuprov says.

According to Chuprov, poor working conditions and rampant corruption in Russia's post-Soviet nuclear sector continue to provide a fertile breeding ground for nuclear contraband.

The Khinsagov case is likely to put the state of Russia's sprawling nuclear stockpiles back into the spotlight once again.

The Proliferation Threat

The Proliferation Threat

The Arak heavy-water plant in central Iran (Fars)

BENDING THE RULES. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told an RFE/RL-Radio Free Asia briefing on January 9 that the West is hamstrung in dealing with Iran and North Korea because of the way it has interpreted the international nonproliferation regime to benefit friendly countries like India and Japan.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 90 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


Iran, North Korea Present Proliferation Challenges

Tehran Watches As North Korea Tests Global Resolve

Rogue Nuclear Programs Threaten New Arms Race

Why Shouldn't Pyongyang Join Nuclear Club?

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