Enriched uranium that could have been made into a "dirty bomb" by terrorists has been seized by Slovakian police after it was allegedly offered for sale for $1m.
Two Hungarians and a Ukrainian suspected of peddling the radioactive material were arrested in eastern Slovakia and Hungary on Wednesday. Michal Kopcik, a senior Slovakian police official, said the men had 481.4 grams of uranium in powdered form. It is believed to have come from a former Soviet republic, but the identity of the intended buyer was not disclosed.
"It was possible to use it in various ways for terrorist attacks," Mr Kopcik said. "The uranium was even more dangerous because it was in powder form."
Police intelligence suggested that the suspects aged 40, 49 and 51 planned to close the deal earlier this week, he added. One of the Hungarians had been living in Ukraine. Officers moved in when the sale did not take place as expected. Three other suspects, including a Slovak, were arrested in the Czech Republic in October for allegedly trying to sell fake radioactive material. It was unclear to what degree, if any, they played a role in this week's thwarted sale.
"According to initial findings, the material originated in the former Soviet republics," Mr Kopcik said.
The uranium was kept in lead containers. Tests showed it contained 98.6 per cent uranium-235. Uranium is considered weapons-grade if it contains at least 85 per cent uranium-235.
The arrests heightened long-standing concerns that eastern Europe is serving as a source of material for a "dirty bomb", which would use conventional explosives to scatter radioactive debris. Roughly 25 kilos of highly-enriched uranium or plutonium is needed to fashion a crude nuclear device. But experts say a tiny fraction of that is enough for a dirty bomb a weapon whose main purpose would be to create fear and chaos, not human casualties.
Vitaly Fedchenko, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said people should not worry that the world was awash with easily-obtainable bomb components. "The danger is definitely there but there is no reason to panic," he added. "Most of the 'buyers' are law enforcement agents, and not all the materials out there are weapons grade."
Eastern Slovakia's border with Ukraine is the European Union's easternmost frontier. In recent years, the authorities have spent millions tightening security, fearing that terrorists or organised crime syndicates could smuggle weapons, explosives and other contraband into the EU. In 2003, Czech police arrested two Slovaks in the city of Brno after they allegedly sold undercover officers natural depleted uranium for $715,000 (350,000).
Ukrainian authorities, Western governments and international watchdogs repeatedly have warned that radioactive material from the nation's 15 operational reactors and the Chernobyl plant could find its way into terrorist hands.
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