- SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Organized criminal syndicates such as the Italian
Mafia could be starting to build a global distribution network for smuggled
nuclear material from Russia, scholars said Thursday. At the State of the
World Forum, an annual gathering of world leaders and civic activists,
a panel of U.S. nuclear experts said there was disturbing evidence that
organized crime might be getting into the nuclear game. ``Criminal drug
syndicates are known to be seeking nuclear weapons, and have vast resources,''
said former U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, a member of the panel. ``In some ways
we're in graver danger now than we were during the Cold War.''
- William Potter, director of the Center
for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International
Studies, said economic crisis had left Russia with alarmingly lax controls
over its estimated 30,000 nuclear weapons and stockpiles of radioactive
material. ``The situation is desperate,'' said Potter, who recently returned
from touring various Russian nuclear installations where he studied the
problem of ``loose nukes''. ``Most of this stuff has never been subjected
to a physical inventory ... it is impossible to say how much of the material
may or may not be missing.'' Potter said collapsing security at Russian
nuclear installations, coupled with the financial difficulties of the scientists
in charge of (nuclear) material, was a dangerous combination. ``This is
a crucial problem today in Russia that I think we fail to appreciate.''
- Dr. Rensellaer Lee, an international
security consultant and author of ``Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black
Market in the Former Soviet Union,'' said early trends in the flows of
smuggled nuclear material were beginning to change -- which could be bad
news for world regulators. While most of the hundreds of recorded thefts
of nuclear materials in the early 1990s involved low-grade uranium or nuclear
isotopes that could not be used for weapons production, there is growing
evidence that professionals may be supplanting amateurs in the nuclear
smuggling business and going after much more dangerous materials. ``Fifteen
cases at least have found plutonium or highly enriched uranium (capable
of being used for a weapon),'' Lee said. ``What is seized may just be the
tip of the iceberg.'' Lee said that it appeared much of the nuclear material
now in circulation was ``floating westward looking for a market'', and
that organized crime groups could provide the necessary conduit to buyers.
``Such groups clearly have the access, and the international organization,''
- A conference in France last month of
experts and lawmakers from 85 countries unveiled data from police and the
World Customs Organization (WCO) that appeared to indicate ``a shift from
individuals to organized crime'' and a growing involvement of scientists
in smuggling, officials said.
- Interpol Secretary General Raymond Kendall
said that while there was no ``clear evidence'' of organized criminal involvement
in nuclear smuggling yet, the world should still ''be aware of the fact
that this situation could change very rapidly.'' Lee said he was fairly
certain that organized criminal syndicates were already looking into the
nuclear smuggling business -- which could be one reason why officials had
cracked far fewer smuggling cases in recent years than in the early 1990s.
``Professional traffickers are much less likely to get caught,'' Lee said.