Nuclear Smuggling in the Former Soviet Union

Part of my research responsibilities this summer at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard includes working on the Anecdotes of Insecurity project, which is hosted on the Nuclear Threat Initiative website (accessible here, though it is admittedly outdated). And in working on that project recently, I came across some news that really has piqued my interest in the swath of land that connects Russia to Iran and Turkey -- namely, the countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

In 2006, a North Ossetian man named Oleg Khintsagov (sometimes spelled Khinsagov) was arrested for selling 100 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to an undercover Georgian official. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison. An excellent detailed report of the entire episode (in PDF format) is available from the Belfer Center here, and is covered briefly in the new feature film, Countdown to Zero.

But just in June, it was announced in the Georgian Daily that Khintsagov would receive a presidential pardon that would drop the last two years of his sentence, effectively ending his imprisonment sometime in January or February 2011.

Dr. Matt Bunn, one of the principal investigators at the Project on Managing the Atom where I'm working this summer, and who is featured in Countdown to Zero, was quoted in the Georgian Daily article:

Matthew Bunn, a specialist on nuclear theft and terrorism at Harvard University, called Khintsagov's early release not uncommon, but nonetheless troubling. "One of the key things to stop nuclear smuggling is to try and deter people from getting into nuclear smuggling. ... Anything that decreases the consequences is a concern," Bunn said.

Which brings me to a very interesting statistic, offered up in April of this year by Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. I'm putting this one short sentence into a block quote just to illustrate the alarming danger of the situation:

"The Georgian ministry of interior has foiled eight attempts of illicit trafficking of enriched uranium during the last ten years, including several cases of weapons-grade enrichment."

Eight cases during the last ten years is a lot -- especially when speculating about the number of attempts that weren't thwarted. If the prospects of nuclear smuggling and terrorism are to be taken seriously, then government officials must pay closer attention to regions like the Caucasus, where the potential for illicit trafficking of nuclear-related materials is at its highest. Throw in the fact that the region borders Iran (it's not coincidence that so much smuggling comes through Georgia), and the potential for disaster becomes much greater.

The Caucasus region has become a hotbed of illicit trafficking in all manner of goods, from the everyday and mundane to the highly dangerous. This trend has given the region of South Ossetia (where Khintsagov went to sell his HEU) the nickname of "the world's biggest duty-free shop." Seems to me it has been earned.