Interviews April 2008

Uranium on the Loose

Lawrence Scott Sheets discusses the lawlessness of the former Soviet republics and the nuclear threat no one talks about.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in December 1991, the United States could claim victory in the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama could declare the end of history, and some 280 million people could look forward to a liberated future. But in fact the Soviet Union left its 15 successor states to navigate their own way to democracy and a market economy. And with some 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons—along with perhaps 1,200 tons of bomb-grade uranium—scattered under uncertain ownership and questionable supervision, the securing of the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear materials became a matter of pressing concern.

Over the past decade and half, Russia—with extensive help from the United States—has tried to lock down this atomic detritus, at great expense. But the task is a massive one, and, as of 2008, the two nations face nuclear problems that scarcely registered during the upheaval of the 1990s. Seven years after 9/11, Russia has become something of a terrorists’ nirvana, with 12,500 miles of borders, a military so corrupt that its members have sold weapons to their battlefield enemies, and vast networks of poorly safeguarded nuclear facilities.

Russia is likely the only place in the world where a man like Oleg Khintsagov, an ordinary, destitute, and dimwitted hustler, can pick up weapons-grade uranium and try to hawk it from his pockets. Khintsagov, and two other smugglers of similar means and aptitude—Garik Dadayan and Tamaz Dimitradze—are the subject of “A Smuggler’s Story,” Lawrence Scott Sheets’ piece in the April issue of The Atlantic. The couriers Sheets describes are, to a man, poorly prepared for their missions, yet they have their hands on potentially catastrophic ingredients for an atomic bomb. The story Sheets tells is of a society in collapse in the face of separatist anxieties, ethnic animosities, and ambiguous borders—and of impoverished people seeking to feed their families in a radioactive land.

Lawrence Scott Sheets was National Public Radio’s Moscow Bureau Chief from 2001 to 2005. He is now a visiting scholar at Michigan State University and a regular contributor to NPR.

—Timothy Lavin

If there’s one thing that the three smugglers in your story—Khintsagov, Dadayan, and Dimitradze—have in common, it’s that they don’t seem particularly dangerous, or particularly competent.

The consensus is that all three of these individuals probably had no specific initial interest in radioactive materials and that they probably didn’t even know what kind of material, exactly, they were dealing with. All three had been sort of wheeler-dealer types—guys who had emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union when many, many millions of former Soviet citizens were engaging in any sort of petty trade to get by.

Khintsagov started with sausages and foodstuffs and furs—things like that, which he was selling to his friends who lived on the Georgian side of the border, in order to evade customs. Later on, he evidently became aware of the possibility of peddling radioactive materials, which he’d heard could be quite lucrative. So he fit the same M.O. as did Dadayan, who had a very minimal education and by all indications, again, wasn’t somebody who had specifically expressed an interest in radioactive material.

The same was true of Dimitradze, the Georgian who was apprehended with the "yellowcake," un-enriched uranium. He had been involved in a series of failed petty business ventures, and as for the radioactive items—I was told by the Georgians that he probably didn’t even know what he was dealing with at all. He just had some dream of finding radioactive material because he had heard that it could be a great business proposition and he’d heard of people in Turkey, for instance, or other Georgians connected to the Turkish underworld, who would be willing to buy from him.

So, yes, the common denominator is that none of the three smugglers seemed professional in any sense of the word.

So who were they most likely working for? I imagine that we’re probably not talking about terrorists of any great sophistication—and probably not al-Qaeda?

We don’t know who the interested parties might have been. It sounds like they were all acting as middlemen to other middlemen.

One frustration you mention in the piece is that no one seems to know where these guys are getting their uranium. Experts estimate that there are 200 or so sites around the world that have nuclear weapons or the material to make them. But only a handful of them are unprotected, and even fewer would be accessible to men like Khintsagov and Dadayan. Why is it so hard for the Russian security services to find the leak?

A lot of the materials could have leaked out in the early to mid-1990s, when security was still being stepped up. After that, the United States and Russia started setting up programs to secure Russian nuclear sites. More than one billion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money is now spent on that per year. But this is now 2008; it's been going on for 15 years. It’s anyone’s guess when these materials leaked out.

It’s probably much more difficult to identify where Dimitradze's yellowcake came from because this type of material doesn’t leave the same sort of fingerprint that highly enriched uranium does. What experts will tell you is that in the case of highly enriched uranium, which Mr. Khintsagov and Mr. Dadayan got their hands on, it should be much simpler to determine not only the country of origin but the exact location of origin, because this material does have individual fingerprints.

But having said that, the Russian government has never, as far as we know, made known where this material might have come from. There are two possible explanations for that. One explanation, which is a far more cloak-and-dagger, nefarious scenario, is that the Russians do know where these things are coming from but don’t want to tell anyone because it would be a highly embarrassing situation, involving national security issues.

The second is that perhaps the Russians don’t know. The reason for that would be that even after all these billions of dollars have been spent on bilateral programs, there are probably still stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that have not been fully catalogued by the Russian government. Either scenario is very scary.

Presented by

Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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