Durban uranium stash sparks nuclear alert

2013-11-19 09:16

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Durban - A shopping bag filled with stolen uranium has been seized in a sting operation in Durban, triggering alarm among local and international nuclear watchdog agencies.

The kilogram of the radioactive material confiscated is believed to be a mere sample from a much larger batch, for which police are now hunting.

In a joint operation involving the Durban organised crime unit, crime intelligence and the department of minerals and energy, two men were arrested in their car opposite a shopping centre on the Bluff, following an informant’s tip-off.

'Yellowcake'

They were found with a bag of the material in powder form, known as “yellowcake”, in what The Witness has established is only the fifth confirmed seizure of smuggled uranium in South Africa in the past 20 years.

A Mozambican asylum-seeker, Sasa Esmael Vulay, 23, and a South African, Sibusiso Solomon Mkhize, 24, appeared in the Durban Magistrate’s Court on Monday on possession charges both for the exotic heavy metal and 90 tablets of the drug ecstasy.

The uranium has been sent to the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) for testing.

Police spokesperson Colonel Jay Naicker told The Witness that the highly controlled material was found “in a plastic bag”, while other sources said it was contained in a tin inside a shopping bag.

After a highly sophisticated refinement process, very large quantities of the strictly regulated metal can be processed into a small amount of enriched material used in nuclear weapons.

Low radioactivity

However, South Africa’s “radiation hunter”, Danny McGee - a leading nuclear safety expert - said uranium in the form found this week posed a threat as a poison, rather than as radiation risk or a nuclear weapons fuel.

“Uranium in this form has surprisingly low radioactivity,” he said.

“This should be more a concern about toxicity than about radiation.”

McGee revealed that, despite being a controlled material, uranium could be found in scrapyards and inside industrial x-ray testing instruments.

He said it was even found on the wing-tips of Boeing 747s and in some yacht keels - but that these all had to be registered with government regulatory agencies.

However, McGee said the seized material was likely part of a large batch originally stolen from a uranium mine - “possibly a Namibian mine”.

Noel Stott, senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies, said the kind of uranium seized could not likely be effective as a radioactive “dirty bomb” - but warned that it “could be exploited for its fear value - a propaganda bomb” by a terror group.

Possession of uranium carries a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment under the Nuclear Energy Act.

On Monday, the court granted a request by prosecutor Surekha Marimuthu to postpone the suspects’ bail hearing until 3 December to allow investigators time to check their personal information.

“Vulay is an asylum seeker whose permit expired in April 2013,” said Marimuthu. “We are currently confirming his status in the country while we have yet to ascertain if Mkhize is indeed a South African citizen as he claims.”

Smuggled over border

Although Necsa and SAPS have not yet established its origin, The Witness understands that the uranium powder was likely to have been smuggled over the Mozambique border.

Elliot Mulane, spokesperson for Necsa, said incidents of smuggling were “very rare” - and that “it is of concern to us; particularly if it means that [uranium mines] are not keeping track of their output”.

Mulane said criminal syndicates wrongly assumed that the exotic material had high value, when its regulated value was surprisingly low.

He said “high-value uranium” - in which it has been painstakingly enriched and stored as a metal - is “very well controlled and kept under lock-and-key nationally and the quantities are internationally verified by the safeguards side of the IAEA. The risk of loss of this material is very remote.”

McGee confirmed that criminals suffered a misconception about the value of raw uranium: “The going commercial rate for yellowcake is only about R90 per kilogram.”

Speaking from Vienna, Austria, Greg Webb, spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Commission, said the UN regulator had noted the incident.

On Monday, a major anti-nuclear weapons lobby group in the US - United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) - voiced concern at the seizure, due to its general suspicions that Iran could be behind the smuggling of fissile materials from Africa.

Spokesperson Nathan Carleton told The Witness: “This is highly concerning. South Africa must be vigilant in policing such activities, as Iran does not play by the same rules that other world powers do.”




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