Nuclear Smuggling: Armenia Arrests Suspected Supplier

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By Julian Borger

TBILISI (Guardian) — The Armenian government said this week it had detained a man suspected of supplying nuclear bombgrade uranium to two smugglers caught in Georgia earlier this year trying to sell it on the black market.

The Armenian national security service said Garik Dadayan, who served several months in 2005 for a previous attempt to smuggle highly enriched uranium, had been arrested after information from Georgian investigators. Officials, speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, said that Armenian security officials were conducting a joint investigation into the March incident with their Georgian counterparts.

Two Armenians, Hrant Ohanyan and Sumbat Tonoyan, have pleaded guilty in a Tbilisi court to an attempt to sell a weapons-grade sample of highly-enriched uranium in the Georgian capital to a man they believed to be a representative of an Islamist jihadist group. The would-be buyer in the alleged March 11 deal was an undercover Georgian security agent.

Ohanyan and Tonoyan, who are expected to be sentenced in the next two weeks, admitted smuggling 18 grams of the uranium into Georgia hidden in a lead-lined cigarette box, which had been stashed in a maintenance hatch aboard a night train from Yerevan.

They told Georgian investigators they had been given the weapons-grade uranium by Dadayan, a petty trader and an acquaintance of Ohanyan’s, who had boasted he could get hold of much more from contacts in the Urals and in Siberia.

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The incident, the third case of highlyenriched uranium smuggling uncovered in Georgia in seven years, raises fresh questions on the security of nuclear stockpiles left in the former Soviet Union. Russia is estimated to have about 700 tons of the material held in hundreds of facilities, all with varying levels of security.

Dadayan was caught in 2003, when the 200 grams of weapons-grade uranium he was carrying triggered a radiation sensor at the Armenian-Georgian border. He bribed his way out of detention but was later arrested by Armenian authorities. He only served a few months of a two and half year sentence.

Georgian investigators told the Guardian they suspect Dadayan was allowed to keep some of his stash by the Georgian border guards that he paid off in 2003, and that he supplied this remnant to Ohanyan and Tonoyan, hoping they could find a buyer. The Armenian smugglers were asking for $50,000 a gram for their sample and were offering more if the sale was successful.

The US has spent billions of dollars in recent years trying to lock up vulnerable nuclear stockpiles in Russia.

Shota Utiashvili, head of analysis at the Georgian interior ministry, said it was encouraging that the amounts of highly-enriched uranium being offered on the black market appeared to be diminishing, but he warned that developments in Russia could lead to a resurgence of the illicit trade in nuclear bomb parts. “There is a new danger that the level of corruption in Russia and the increasing immunity of senior officers means that they may well try to sell this stuff again,” Utiashvili said.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have been tense since the two countries went to war in 2008. Russian security services, who gave some assistance in two previous uranium smuggling incidents in Georgia, are not cooperating this time.