(Spring 1994) The black market in nuclear weapons materials and technology, while still in a developmental stage, is causing a flurry of smuggling cases that worried Western investigators. They see the market becoming more serious, better organized, and probably much more extensive than the cases that have come under investigation. German authorities say they have investigated hundreds of cases since 1992 involving the smuggling of nuclear materials. In 1991 the number of cases was only 29.
The black market is likely to expand as the industralized countries, including those of the former Eastern Bloc, tighten their export controls on "dual-use" materials and technology, forcing them into the illicit market system. "Dual-use" materials are those that have non-military as well as military applications.
The economic factors of this illicit market are simple to understand. On the buyer's side are countries aggressively pursuing programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. They either have the wealth with which to enter the market, as in the case of Iran, which has a huge revenue from oil sales, or they have such tight control over their populations that they can politically afford to devote a high percentage of the national budget to military expenditures rather than to social needs. North Korea, for example, whose people are suffering severe economic hardships, spends 21.5 percent of its budget on the military, and this does not include the cost of its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Încreasingly cut off from legal sources for the military goods they crave, countries such as Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Iraq will turn to whatever sources can come up with the goods.
On the sellers' side are unscrupulous entrepreneurs who know they can get very high prices for proscribed nuclear and other materials. Their task is to find the goods and then get them to market. In their favor is a general state of penury and fractured lines of command and control in the former Eastern Bloc that are likely to make access to illicit goods easier, or, in the case of swindlers, will make more credible their pretension that they have obtained such goods. The fact that nuclear weapons are being moved about in great numbers and being disassembled, under international weapons reduction agreements, gives rise to considerable concern that something, somewhere will go wrong, and an enterprising smuggler will be there to try to profit from it.
Investigators are beginning to note certain patterns in the smuggling of nuclear contraband. The goods move from the former Eastern Bloc to Western Europe, where the buyers are. Poland is a favorite country of passage, given its porous borders with the supplier countries of the former Bloc and with a prime marketing country, Germany.
The people involved tend to be professional smugglers and swindlers, moving nuclear contraband much as they have moved cigarettes and drugs. There is clear evidence of ties between nuclear smugglers and organized crime networks.
Until recently, from the standpoint of nuclear bomb production, the detected smuggling incidents have been insignificant. Plutonium flakes embedded in smoke detectors in quantities too small to have any nuclear weapons relevance have hit the market, as has a mysterious substance called "red mercury." The latter commands a price of $500,000 per kilogram even though scientists do not know exactly what it is or what relevance it has to nuclear bomb production. Some smugglers have no clear idea of what it is they are carrying or what safety measures should be taken, as in the case of two Polish smugglers who received more than 80,000 times the permissible limit of radiation from the radioactive cesium-137 they were carrying in unshielded containers.
More serious cases have come to light, however. The Russians, who have taken measures to control the legal export of sensitive materials, are also cracking down on illicit trade. In one case, Russian security forces arrested 13 people involved in trying to smuggle 80 kilograms of uranium through Poland to the West, where it commands the price of $700,000 per kilo. Russian authorities refused to reveal the degree of enrichment, but if enriched to weapons grade, the 80 kilos of uranium could be enough to produce four nuclear bombs. Several other cases of uranium smuggling from the same area were thwarted earlier.
German police arrested a Polish gang in 1992 trying to sell a nuclear warhead, prompting German authorities to request the Russians to keep better track of their nuclear materials. At the same time, Ukrainians seized nine Poland-bound containers of strontium-90, which has a number of military uses.
In addition to heightened controls over nuclear and other sensitive substances by Germany, Japan, and many of the republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States, police authorities in these and other countries are beginning to cooperate by exchanging information on movements of large amounts of money and on the smuggling networks themselves. In a meeting hosted by Poland, police chiefs from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Moldova decided to establish information exchanges and joint operations against nuclear and other forms of smuggling.