Two Hungarians and a Ukrainian were arrested Wednesday after trying to sell highly enriched uranium, Slovak diplomats and police authorities said Thursday. The quantity, however, was far too small to make a crude warhead.
Zuzana Dutkova, a spokeswoman for the Permanent Representation of the Slovak Republic to the European Union in Brussels, said the three suspects, who were arrested in Slovakia and Hungary, were in possession of just under half a kilogram of uranium in powder form.
Dutkova, who said she had been briefed on the case by officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Bratislava, said, “We are almost 90 percent sure that the material originated in one of the former Soviet republics. It was possible to use this material for terrorist attacks or to build a dirty bomb.”
Western experts, however, cautioned that uranium, even when highly enriched, has too little radioactivity to make a dirty bomb — a weapon that combines highly radioactive material with conventional explosives to disperse over a large area deadly dust that people would inhale. Dirty bombs are considered more a psychological armament than a weapon of mass destruction because their radioactive material is potentially much less lethal than a bomb using conventional explosives, experts say. Consequently, dirty bombs are sometimes called “weapons of mass disruption” whose destructive power rests in the panic they provoke.
By contrast, highly enriched uranium can fuel nuclear arms. However, the experts said the amount of material confiscated — about a pound — was far shy of the 60 to 110 pounds a terrorist would need for a crude atomic weapon. They also cast doubt on the level of enrichment the Slovak authorities attributed to the uranium.
Dutkova said officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs were still trying to determine who was trying to buy the uranium, which the three suspects were believed to have been planning to sell for $1 million. She said two of the suspects were arrested in Slovakia, along the Hungarian border, while the other was arrested in Hungary.
She said that a total of 481.4 grams of uranium had been hidden in containers, and that investigators determined it was enriched to 98.6 percent uranium-235. Uranium is considered highly enriched if it contains 20 percent or more uranium-235, which can split in bursts of atomic energy.
Thomas B. Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in Washington that monitors atomic arsenals, said he doubted that the 98.6 percent enrichment figure given by the Slovaks was correct.
It was far more likely that “98.6 percent is the confidence in the radiation detector measurement, not the enrichment,” Cochran said.
When Slovakia joined the European Union in May 2004, its eastern border with Ukraine became the union’s easternmost frontier. Some E.U. officials have been concerned about security at that border, fearful that it could become a hotbed for terrorists and organized criminal gangs seeking to smuggle explosives or banned material into the union.