Organized Crime Actively
Trying To Buy Stolen
Russian Nukes
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,'' Lee said.
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.