Police in Thailand and Georgia recently apprehended suspects possessing radiological materials, reinforcing international concern about the availability of the building blocks for “dirty bombs.”
Authorities in Thailand apprehended Narong Penanam on June 13 after the police, tipped off by U.S. investigators, seized a substance in an undercover sting operation that the suspect claimed was uranium. Tests later showed the material was cesium-137, which, if paired with a conventional explosive, could be used to make a radiological weapon, or “dirty bomb,” that could spread radioactive debris over a wide area.
U.S. and Thai authorities have been working together since October 2002, after preliminary reports surfaced about the possible sale of weapons-grade uranium in Asia, according to a June 13 Homeland Security Department press release. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge called the sting operation “an outstanding example of international cooperation in disrupting the proliferation of radiological material.”
The suspect claimed that he procured the material from a source in neighboring Laos and expected to net as much as $240,000 from selling it. U.S. officials told The New York Times that the seized quantity of cesium—initially reported to weigh around 66 pounds—may have originated in Russia.
Loose radioactive material was also found in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, according to a June 16 Reuters article. Georgian police found containers of cesium-137 and strontium-90, as well as nerve gas concentrate, in a Tbilisi taxi cab May 31, and they arrested the taxi driver and two other suspects. Like cesium-137, strontium-90 is a radioactive isotope that could be used to make a dirty bomb. According to Givi Mgebrishvili, spokesman for the Georgian Interior Ministry, “The most likely version is that the containers were intended to be transported on to Turkey and to be resold,” Reuters reported.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has worked with Georgian authorities since 1997 to secure radioactive materials and dispose of abandoned equipment containing such materials, often found at Soviet-era military installations. They have not always been successful: In June 2002, for example, IAEA and Georgian authorities failed to find two strontium-90 thermoelectric generators known to have been abandoned in western Georgia.
The agency has documented over 280 incidents worldwide since 1993 involving the illicit trafficking of radioactive material, and in March over 120 countries met to discuss the problem. (See ACT, April 2003.)