There really are uranium smugglers: a group of Romanians with $1.5m worth were caught last week. Is this the next real threat? And how safe are Russian nuclear sites from thieves? Charles Arthur, Science Editor, reports.
It took months of investigation, and careful efforts, but the thorough work of the Romanian police finally paid off last Thursday. They got a chance to get killed slowly.

Constantin Marinescu, a senior police official, described what happened. "For several months we tried to gain the dealers' trust, and then that day our men met them in a restaurant to strike a deal. The policemen had $300,000 (pounds 187,500) for the purported transaction, and the dealers had five tablets of uranium".

The weight of the uranium was barely 100 grams. But it was enough.

The police arrested the four would-be international uranium smugglers - two Romanians and two Moldovans - and moved on to the gangleader's home to carry out a thorough search.

There they found another 14 uranium tablets, weighing 280 grams, hidden in lead pipes under a rubbish bin. The entire haul of 380 grams was worth about $1.5m in total, the police estimated.

Speaking to a commercial Romanian TV station, Mr Marinescu said that the four men - whose ages ranged from 29 to 51 - are part of an international network trafficking in uranium originating from former Soviet republics. And, he warned, the police have information that may lead to further arrests.

The fact that there has been another arrest for uranium smuggling shows that the predictions made after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have begun to come true. Uranium stockpiles in the ex-Soviet Union are not safe from the profit motive.

For a while, it seemed that the tales of "red mercury" were just that - tales. TV scriptwriters loved them; even Hollywood eventually got into the act, with the release in September of The Peacemaker, about a stolen Russian nuclear warhead. And no doubt some of the smarter conmen in eastern Europe found some willing dupes who were prepared to believe the stories they heard, and pay money believing they were moving a step up the nuclear ladder.

However, the stories quite quickly began turning into truth. In August 1994 Hungarian police arrested two men who had been trying to sell 2kg of uranium in a car park. Their price was more modest - just $80,000. However, the uranium was not of fissile quality, which is what the more discerning terrorist - or state-sponsored buyer - would be looking for.

That incident, though, was the fourth such seizure in Hungary in four years. Soon afterwards, Russia promised to join a pact with other nations in which it would swap information in order to track and capture people smuggling radioactive materials that might be used for manufacturing nuclear weapons.

In April 1996, the Group of Seven leading industrialised countries met in Moscow - and the Kremlin announced (again) that it would carry out "unprecedented co-operation" with the world's most powerful intelligence agencies, to try to halt the threat of nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states.

"In the sphere of nuclear safety Russia suggests a transition from confrontation and rivalry to co-operation," said Viktor Mikhailov, the Minister of Atomic Energy.

The agreement would tighten security around nuclear sites, improve the accounting system for fissile material and establish an intelligence- sharing operation to shadow potential nuclear smugglers.

It was hardly one which Russia, seeking G7 financial help, could turn down. At that time there had been at least six reported thefts of nuclear material inside Russia, when either enriched uranium or plutonium, the basic components of an atomic weapon, were stolen.

"This agreement will help to tighten the security around these installations," said an American official.

Well, hope springs eternal. In November last year, Italian police at Brindisi intercepted a boat from Albania, and seized 4kg of liquid mercury, apparently designed for weapons manufacture. That followed an incident in June 1995, when a ship with uranium on board was reported to have sunk near Otranto, on the Italian coast, and the Finance Police seized a consignment of white mercury from a ship registered in Vlore. Clearly, the Russian signing of the agreement wasn't making an immediate difference.

Then in March this year, Italy's top anti-Mafia prosecutor, Pier Luigi Vigna, held a summit of police chiefs from the country's southern town to discuss how to tackle a crime wave that had followed the arrival of more than 10,000 Albanian refugees. Among the problems was the reported smuggling of radioactive material from Albania, for sale on the underground market.

At the time, officials said that 10 "containers of radioactive material" had been stolen by Albanians looting a "military-related installation" - almost certainly an arms factory - at Fier, near Tirana in Albania. But they wouldn't say whether it contained uranium, or weapons-grade plutonium.

"But we are not talking about radioactive waste," one official said.

The Italian newspaper Gazetta del Sud quoted Italian secret service sources as saying that the missing radioactive material was "in the Otranto area", and that it had been smuggled in on an Albanian naval vessel, commandeered by the refugees, which had arrived in Italy during March.

The clear implication is that the former Soviet Union, and the former Communist states, are still leaky sites as far as uranium is concerned. The question now is, where might it go?

At present of course there's one, obvious answer: Iraq.

Two months ago Rolf Ekeus, who until June was head of the UN Special Commission in charge of stripping Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, told The Independent that he had already found evidence that Russia was selling missile-guidance systems, recovered from submarines decommissioned under the Start program, to Saddam Hussein.

When he found that, he begun to think about what else Russia might sell to Iraq. "What Iraq needs is not much," he said. "They'd be happy with 20kg [of bomb-grade uranium]. If they could get a 100kg, wonderful - that would be five [nuclear] devices."

Of course, Russia would not want to be involved in any such sale; and the secret services of other countries, particularly Israel, would take a close interest in stopping weapons-grade material getting into Iraq. But as the arrests in Romania last week, and in Hungary and Italy, show, people are always willing to take a risk - including that of their own lives - if there's the chance of some profit at the end.

Furthermore, it might not be that hard to get hold of that uranium. Jessica Stern, who used to work for the US National Security Council, tracked uranium smuggling incidents for the US government. Her comment? "Some nuclear equipment in Russia is stored in gym-type lockers, secured with the equivalent of bicycle padlocks."