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
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.
Turkish police arrest six people for smuggling 13 glass tubes suspected of containing nuclear material from Iran into Turkey. The suspects claim the cylinders contained snake venom, but later confess they planned to deliver them to Istanbul and sell each for $1,000.
Istanbul police seize two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of osmium-187 in 64 glass tubes and take six people into custody. Customs officials had been tipped off about a company involved in an international smuggling ring for nuclear and chemical materials. Heat-resistant osmium is combined with plutonium for coating nuclear missile warheads.
Ukrainian police seize six metal containers filled with cesium-137 in a village in Crimea. The containers’ radiation level exceed the normal background level by 380 times, prompting officers to evacuate the home in which they were discovered and surrounding houses.
A Russian man attempting to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium is arrested through a joint Georgian-CIA operation in Tbilisi, along with several Georgian accomplices. Oleg Khinsagov was carrying a plastic bag full of the highly enriched uranium in his pocket. The capture is one of the largest of its kind, and Khinsagov is sentenced to eight to ten years in prison.
A staffer of the Ukrainian Embassy in Germany and the security manager of a Ukrainian bank are arrested with radioactive materials, including uranium and cesium, worth 3.1 millions euros ($4.1 million) in their car. The material had been stolen from a Kiev holding facility, and the two planned to sell it to a criminal group.
Moldovan police arrest six people for attempting to sell more than one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of uranium-235, valued at approximately $20 million.
(Much thanks to Alex P. Schmid & Charlotte Spencer-Smith for their indispensable research on this subject.)