NBC Weapons: July 4, 2002

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International nuclear inspectors are investigating the disappearance of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) from an ex-Soviet institute (as well as whether any associated manufacturing equipment also disappeared) has been acquired by terrorist organizations or states with nuclear envy, like Iran or Iraq. According to Valter Kashiya, former director of Sukhumi's Physical-Technical Institute and a space systems engineer currently leading Sukhumi's scientists-in-exile in the Georgian Republic's capital Tbilisi, HEU and other radioactive materials stored in Abkhazia might have already fallen into the wrong hands. 

The Sukhumi physical-technical institute was founded in 1945 and was part of the USSR's secret enterprises working on the production of an atomic bomb (the Black Sea coastal city of Sukhumi is also the capital of Abkhazia). In the 1940s and 1950s, Sukhumi scientists developed gaseous-diffusion and gas-centrifuge technologies with the aid of physicists from defeated Germany. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian scientists withdrew to the motherland and Georgia became independent, while ethnic Abkhazians rebelled. The last 200 scientists and technicians fled to Tbilisi in 1993, during the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. After insurgents captured Sukhumi, the cache of HEU vanished. 

Kashiya told Interfax that 244 types of radioactive substances and materials, including an amount of enriched uranium-235, were stored at the institute. A 1993 inventory showed 655 grams (1.4 pounds) of enriched uranium at one of five buildings onsite, but American nonproliferation specialists quoted Georgian sources that there may have totaled actually been as much as 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds). Kashia told the press that Soviet secrecy might account for reports that the HEU at Sukhumi amounted to more than indicated in the 1993 inventory and hinted that the "Russians there might have been up to other things".

Physicist David Albright of Washington's Institute for Science and International Policy (who as an IAEA inspector in the 1990s helped suppress Iraq's plans) told the Associated Press that even 40-year-old centrifuges or other enrichment equipment could benefit a state or group with nuclear ambitions. The question is, what kind of bomb could be built with the available materials?

Assorted experts have long complained that sufficient information is publicly available for a dedicated team to build a "gun" type nuclear weapon similar to what the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. However, that weapon used two loads of highly enriched uranium-235 totaling about 92 pounds. Officials say that 55 pounds of HEU would be needed to make nuclear weapon, but some specialists speculate that it could be done with as little as 18 pounds - or even 7 pounds of material enriched to 90 percent U-235, depending on the sophistication of the design. 

When it comes to nuclear materials smuggling, there have been a series of last-minute catches. In December 1994, a Czech nuclear scientist, a Russian and Belarussian arrested in Prague, Czech Republic with six pounds of HEU (apparently from Russia's Obninsk nuclear institute). In January 1996, a shipment allegedly bound for Libya was intercepted in Zurich, Switzerland (.5 ounce) and Yalova, Turkey (2.6-pounds). This was traced back to ex-Soviet Georgia and three Turks were arrested. In December 1998, two staff members of an unidentified nuclear facility in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia (working with "outsiders") were foiled onsite, when they attempted to steal 41 pounds of HEU and a second unspecified nuclear material. 

In May 1999, a Turk was arrested on the Turkish-Bulgarian border with .33 ounce of HEU. This apparent sample was traced back to ex-Soviet Moldova. In April 2000, four Georgians were arrested in Batumi, Georgian Republic with 2 pounds of HEU from an unknown source. A Frenchman and two men from Cameroon were arrested in July 2001, when a 0.18 ounce sample of apparently ex-Soviet HEU was found in van in Paris. - Adam Geibel

 


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