Top Ten Cases of Nuclear Thefts Gone Wrong

These thieves would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling anti-smuggling authorities

Nuclear material explodes into the sky during a thermonuclear test by the French Army in 1970. (Flickr user Pierre J.)

Since 1993, there have been 419 cases of smuggled or stolen nuclear materials worldwide. Today, about 1.6 million kilograms of highly enriched uranium and 500,000 kilograms of plutonium—enough to make more than 125,000 nuclear bombs—exist in nations across the globe. The following ten incidents detail success stories of snatching some of these loose nukes up from the black market.


The first-known thief of weapons-grade fissile material, chemical engineer Leonid Smirnov, smuggles 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium from a Russian state research institute where he worked. He does so over a five-month period, sneaking 50 grams of the material at a time and storing it in a jar on his apartment’s balcony. Before he can find a potential buyer, he is arrested in October and sentenced to three years’ probation.


A navy lieutenant colonel and a deputy administrator of the Polyarnyy submarine base enter a naval fuel store at a shipyard near Murmansk, Russia. Crawling in through a hole in the perimeter fence, they steal three fuel rods containing 4.34 kilograms (9.5 pounds) of highly enriched uranium, intending to sell it for $50,000. The fuel is hidden in the administrator’s garage for seven months, until the lieutenant colonel, intoxicated, brags about the theft to fellow officers, leading to the arrest of both men.


Three men are arrested at the Munich airport after their Lufthansa flight from Moscow touches down and they are found to be carrying 560 grams of mixed-oxide reactor fuel. The fuel consists of both plutonium and uranium, and the sample is found to hold 363 grams of weapons-grade plutonium. The smugglers are caught thanks to a German sting operation involving an undercover buyer.


Italian man Nicola Todesco is arrested for murder in a plutonium smuggling case gone awry. After killing a buyer who didn’t have the money to pay for the material, Todesco claimed he threw five grams of it into the Adige River, but no trace of it was found after a search.


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