WASHINGTON — On a dark morning in March, two Armenians slipped aboard a train in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, unaware they were being watched. They removed a pack of Marlboro Reds hidden in a maintenance box between two cars. Inside the pack, Georgian authorities say, was nuclear bomb grade uranium, encased in lead.
Before long, Georgian officials seized the uranium and arrested the men, breaking up a ring they say was willing to sell material for nuclear weapons to any bidder. International officials see the operation as one victory in the effort to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into terrorists’ hands.
The seizure was reported in April, but few details were disclosed. The Associated Press now has obtained more information from Georgian officials about an operation involving international smugglers and undercover agents.
For all its apparent success, the investigation highlighted the difficulty of stopping nuclear smuggling in the Caucasus. The region has porous borders, widespread corruption and unknown quantities of unsecured materials left over from the Soviet period.
Still unanswered is whether the small amount of uranium in the cigarette pack was a sample of a larger stash yet to be found.
“The dangerous thing is that there might be more material out there somewhere,” said Archil Pavlenishvili, chief of Georgia’s nuclear smuggling unit in the interior ministry. “This proves that if a criminal or an extremist is wealthy enough, it is possible to obtain material.”
Pavlenishvili, who led the team that carried out the operation, provided rare details of the nuclear smuggling underground in an interview with the AP. According to the account he and other Georgian officials gave:
The investigation began with a tip from an informant. The man, an ex-smuggler from a village near the Black Sea coast city of Batumi, was once involved in selling fake radiological materials. He told Georgian authorities he had infiltrated a network of smugglers and had learned of an Armenian man trying to sell “serious” nuclear material.
The Armenian, investigators learned, was Sumbat Tonoyan. Once a dairy factory owner, he had lost a fortune gambling and turned to smuggling. Authorities had photos of him taken at border crossings on trips to Turkey.
An undercover agent contacted Tonoyan about the nuclear material, saying only he was from “a significant organization.”
Tonoyan first demanded more than $8 million for 120 grams of uranium — a fraction of the amount needed for a bomb. He did not specify the enrichment level. Uranium has to be highly enriched to be used in a nuclear weapon.
In a second meeting, he came down to about $1.5 million in U.S. bills. Pavlenishvili says smugglers usually settle below $10,000 a gram for bomb grade material. The mere existence of a typical black-market price is a worrisome sign of the supply and demand in the illicit trading of nuclear materials.