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Ukraine Arrests Three Attempting To Sell Radioactive Material

Nuclear safety is a key concern in Ukraine, the site of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.
(RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has arrested three men, including a regional lawmaker, who allegedly tried to sell a radioactive substance suitable for use in a terror attack.

An SBU spokeswoman said the lawmaker in the western Ternopyl region and two businessmen were detained for trying to sell the substance to an undercover agent. The trio wanted $10 million for what was purportedly plutonium-239, a highly radioactive material that can be used to make a nuclear bomb.

SBU spokeswoman Marina Ostapenko did not name the legislator or the businessmen alleged to be involved, nor say where the incident took place.

Ostapenko did say the trio was arrested on April 9 as they attempted to sell 3.7 kilograms of the substance to an undercover Ukrainian agent who had set up a meeting with them.

In fact, the material the suspects were selling was not plutonium at all. Tests by experts indicate it is probably a metallic chemical called americium, a common, less-radioactive substance used in smoke detectors, industrial gauges, and other commercial uses.

As such, it is useless for nuclear bomb making. But if it fell into the wrong hands it could still make a very effective terrorist weapon -- a so-called dirty bomb.

In this scenario, the americium could be attached to a quantity of a common explosive, such as dynamite. When exploded, radioactive material would be spread over an area of some 10 city blocks.

The security service said in a statement that it believes the radioactive material was produced in Russia during the Soviet era and smuggled into Ukraine.

The fall of the Soviet Union led to a loss of official control of nuclear materials of all sorts, and the last decade has seen hundreds of attempts to sell stolen and smuggled materials to the highest bidder on the black market.

The Ukrainians in the latest case face between eight and 15 years in jail for illegally handling radioactive material.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech in Prague on April 5 that illicit, unsecured nuclear materials are now found around the world. He said he is planning a new initiative to secure such materials within the next four years.