Police in Slovakia and Hungary have busted a black-market ring allegedly aiming to sell nuclear contraband on the eastern frontier of Europe, Slovak authorities said late Wednesday. Three people have been arrested for trying to sell 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of enriched uranium for for €680,000 ($1 million).
On Wednesday the Slovak police had also said the contraband was a full kilogram (2.2 pounds) of a "highly dangerous radioactive material," but on Thursday they amended the information to say it was just under half a kilogram of enriched uranium in powder form.
"It was possible to use it in various ways for terrorist attacks," said First Slovak Police Vice President Michal Kopcik.
The uranium originated from an ex-Soviet republic, he said, without going into detail, and police weren't sure yet who was trying to buy it.
Kopcik said the 481.4 grams of powder had been stashed in unspecified containers, and that investigators determined it had a 98.6 percent uranium-235 content. "Weapons-grade" uranium contains at least 85 percent uranium-235.
Experts say about 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium or plutonium is needed to fashion a crude nuclear device. But a fraction of that would be enough, they say, for a "dirty bomb," which could use conventional explosives to scatter radioactive debris and spread panic.
A spokesman for the Slovak police, Martin Korch, said on Wednesday, "Three people have been taken into custody, two in Slovakia one in Hungary," and added that Slovak and Hungarian police had worked on the case for months.
Kopcik said the suspects ranged in age from 40 to 51. Three other suspects, including a Slovak national identified as Eugen K., had been arrested in mid-October in the Czech Republic for allegedly peddling fake radioactive material. But Kopcik said he wasn't sure if they were related to this uranium case.
All three of the current suspects were detained near the Ukrainian border. Slovakia's border with Ukraine is the EU's frontier in the east, and authorities have worried since the collapse of the Soviet Union about a dangerous black market for radioactive material in this region.
But Kate Hudson, chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK, told the Associated Press that a wide underground market hadn't really materialized.
"The kind of massive problem that had been envisioned hasn't come to fruition," she said.
Still, there has been a massive increase in incidents of lost or stolen radioactive material. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear energy watchdog, such incidents have spiked by 200 percent since 2002. Melissa Flemming of the IAEA said Wednesday's event will be monitored for the database the group keeps on such incidents.
It is not the first such seizure for Slovakia. In 2003, police arrested two Slovaks for attempting to sell low-enriched uranium to undercover cops. In 2006, officials in the country of Georgia helped the CIA arrest a Russian man trying to sell a small amount of weapons-grade uranium.