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#1077, 16 July 2003
 
Uranium Heist
Gargi
Freelancer
 

On 30 May 2003, the Bangladeshi police arrested four suspected members of a militant Islamic group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in village Puiya while smuggling uranium. The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission confirmed that the recovered football-size package contained 225 grams of uranium oxide manufactured in Kazakhstan and enough to make a crude bomb.

Not far from Puiya, on the other side of the international border, lies India’s nascent but richest uranium mines in West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. Smuggling of uranium ore from here makes occasional headlines. On 16 October 1994, the Shillong police arrested four persons for smuggling uranium. It led to seizures of 2.5 kg of semi-processed uranium and 95 kgs of unprocessed uranium. Though the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) declined to comment, it was found that a former AEC employee – working in the Persian Gulf – was involved in the smuggling. Experts surmised that the stolen uranium was to be smuggled through Bangladesh to Pakistan.

These two incidents should push the panic button. Though there is no official declaration of links between uranium heists and terrorists, it does raise the spectre of nuclear terrorism. Moreover, the handling of stolen radioactive materials by technically unqualified persons poses great hazards to the ecology and human health.

India has reported frequent thefts of nuclear materials, particularly uranium. The incidence of nuclear thefts dates back to the seizure of nuclear fissile material as early as the 1980s. Some major thefts are:

27 August 2001: The West Bengal policed arrested two men with more than 200 grams of semi-processed uranium. Intelligence reports suggested the existence of an active uranium smuggling racket in West Bengal.

13 November 2000: The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that the Indian police seized three uranium rods and arrested eight persons on charges of illicit trafficking of nuclear material. The suspicion was that the civil nuclear facilities were vulnerable to such thefts. Earlier, on 7 November 2000, according to the IAEA, the Indian police had seized 57 pounds of uranium and arrested two men on charges of illicit trafficking of radioactive material.

1 May 2000: Mumbai police seized 8.3 kgs of uranium. The uranium was termed depleted but radioactive by the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC). In this case, the source of this uranium theft – as cited by the police – was Leelavati hospital in Bandra. However, the hospital authorities maintained that no fissile material/uranium was missing.

July 1998: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seized eight kgs of nuclear material from one Arun, a structural engineer in Chennai. The Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research (IGCAR) found after analysis that it contained six kgs of natural uranium (U237 and U238) and U 235, which is weapons grade. This led to further seizures of uranium on 31 July 1998 of 31 grams in addition to 2 kg from two other engineers. Analysis showed that the uranium must have been sourced from an atomic research center. The case was buried.

 

All this is alarming given the wide spread of India’s nuclear facilities. There is a possibility that these materials could have reached the wrong hands. Investigations do not seem to have led to the root of these thefts. Interestingly in all these cases no charges could be leveled against these miscreants as there were conflicts between the different organizations concerned.

India is a signatory to three international conventions on nuclear safety, and such incidents affect our international image. There is no specialized police or investigative agency to probe such issues. On the other hand, our premier nuclear organizations do not disclose their nuclear material stocks under the Atomic Energy Act.

Added to these is the problem of thousands of hospitals which use nuclear material for medical purposes. In 1995, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board warned that the mushrooming medical facilities without proper facilities and expertise to use radioactive materials were a great threat to human health. Moreover, without an effective monitoring system these hospitals can misuse radioactive materials. In most of these theft cases doubts were cast on medical institutions and their employees.

Interestingly, till now we have no idea about the destination of the smuggled radioactive materials. In all these cases what we know is that arrests were made and later the cases just fizzled out. Is something big happening behind the scenes?

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