Durban uranium stash sparks nuclear alert

2013-11-19 09:16

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.


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.”

  • Fanie Viljoen - 2013-11-19 09:23

    And they worry about Iran? Only in Africa

      Robert Sidney - 2013-11-19 10:21

      Was waiting for the "only in Africa" comment as soon as I started reading. It's becoming as boring as the "Zimbabwe here we come" utterance.

      Neill Le Roux - 2013-11-19 10:23

      Must have come to South Africa on the Gupta's flight I bet...

      Bob Pacak - 2013-11-19 10:23

      Why do you think we still get oil from Iran...with USA blessing

      Vanniekaap Kaap - 2013-11-19 10:49

      Well said Robert. Most commentators on News24 don't even read the articles properly - they just jump in with their stock phrases.

      Zip Reeper - 2013-11-19 10:51

      ha ha... it's zuma's 'final solution'. they don't call nkandla zuma's berghof for nothing.

  • Colin Malan - 2013-11-19 09:26

    WHAT NEXT ???? Illegals involved again.. Questionable border control..

      Jhon Darken - 2013-11-19 15:17

      What border control?

  • Karl van Rooyen - 2013-11-19 09:28

    There you go . South Africa become the open market . Anything you want u can get it in sunny south Africa .

  • Martin Wohlfarter - 2013-11-19 09:28

    Go Danny! :-)

  • Mario Dippenaar - 2013-11-19 09:33

    Odd how the criminals sped away in a Delorean at 88 miles per hour.

  • ARTFUL DODGER. - 2013-11-19 09:33

    LEGACY, left to us by Mandela...and his A.N.C cadars!!!!

      Robert Sidney - 2013-11-19 10:22

      Artful Idiot

      CliveK - 2013-11-19 10:25

      What's a "cadar", Fart-full?

      Vanniekaap Kaap - 2013-11-19 10:51

      What's a 'cadar'?

      ARTFUL DODGER. - 2013-11-19 12:08

      To make Robert,Clive,and Vanniekaap hAPPY!!!!...."CADRES"!!!..Are the three of you happy now????

      Robert Sidney - 2013-11-19 12:18

      That wasn't why my comment. Mine was because of your idiotic insult to Madiba. If you believe what you wrote above, well, hence my comment calling you an idiot. Only you and a couple of rightwingers will believe that anyway.

      JohnnyBetter - 2013-11-19 12:19

      No,I have some serious heartburn. Got milk ???

  • Thami Shongwe - 2013-11-19 09:35

    trust the US to use this as their imunition for their plans to attack Iran

      Simon Henderson - 2013-11-19 09:41

      Yes, because we all want unstable nation states to have access to as many WMD's as humanly possible...

      Jan Hendrik - 2013-11-19 09:54

      Or attack us.

      Bob Pacak - 2013-11-19 10:24

      No wtf has this got to do with Iran?

      CliveK - 2013-11-19 10:27

      They won't get very far using this low grade stuff as their "imunition", Thami.

      Simon Henderson - 2013-11-19 10:28

      "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." Reading the article helps Bob.

  • Athena - 2013-11-19 09:39

    I know I shouldn't laugh, because it really isn't funny, but where else in the world would you find someone waltzing around with stolen Uranium in a plastic shopping bag, nogal?

      Carling Blacklabel - 2013-11-19 09:54

      and with a bag of party pills!

      Ol Mabaso - 2013-11-19 15:45

      Once I carried R 1 mil in plastic bag, thought it was ace...but this fellows beat me to pulp...:(

  • Timothy Schuler - 2013-11-19 09:42

    Nuclear material and ecstasy, lethal combination.

      Bob Pacak - 2013-11-19 10:24

      One hell of a blast!

      Craig Allen Salter - 2013-11-19 10:57

      thats what they were doing. they were making nucular grade MDMA for clubs. the pill that never stops and makes you glow a strange green

  • Shawn Watkins - 2013-11-19 09:44

    Next thing you know, we have beef with the USA and UN

  • Carling Blacklabel - 2013-11-19 09:49


  • Stinkhout - 2013-11-19 10:18

    So where did who steal this stuff from?

  • Jacqui Daane Van Rensburg - 2013-11-19 10:20

    Worry about Iran?. Here you find the stuff in a shopping bag. Question is where did it come from?. Or even more frightening what was it going to be used for?.

      Bob Pacak - 2013-11-19 10:28

      If my memory serves me right there is still one nuclers warhead uncounted for going back 25 odd years when SA signed the nuclear non proliferation yes lets not wotty about Iran we have uranium avaialbale at the local shopping they sya you can get anything at a robot in SA....USA...SUCK ON THIS!

  • pws69 - 2013-11-19 10:32

    Well done to the cops for catching them. I want to know who the buyers were.

  • mantlekilo - 2013-11-19 10:45

    You cannot deny that this country is a cesspool and minefield of crime and corruption. At every turn, in every nook and cranny , in the shadows of all potential, someone is ready to make a quick buck out of someone or something, no matter the consequences. I do not wish to hear of other countries with similar or different challenges. Our challenge is about the here and the now and what we need is to regain control of a country. How is obviously the 64 mill question....perhaps a good place to begin is to establish who exactly is in charge....organised crime or .....more organised criminals.

  • Steven R Randall - 2013-11-19 10:45

    "Shopping bag FILLED with Uranium" do you have any idea how heavy that is!! plastic would break

  • Herbert Daniël Du Plessis - 2013-11-19 11:20

    It saddens me that the strict controls on these sort of things are being ignore. It is also a less than palatable reality the it occurs to often in too many places. Medical laboratories having dangerous items stolen, municipalities dumping improperly and poor hygiene in hospitals. Before anyone goes off on a tangent, this happens all over the world, especially where the governments are run by despots and tyrants, cronyism is rife and where the populace is divided by income, race and gender.

  • Steve Joseph - 2013-11-19 11:28

    Sheesh radioactive eckkkie's,what a blast!!!!

  • Vince Muller - 2013-11-19 11:44

    Well done to the Police... wish our government starts to wake up and enforce stricker laws regarding the influx of foreigners... it seems we're now the centre for all illegal activities, smuggling, etc.... Learn from Singapore...

  • Jaco Botes - 2013-11-19 11:50

    Dear Elliot Mulane. Smuggling are happening on a daily basis into South Africa. It just depends on the border controller, their knowledge of what goes in and out, how much they are willing to take for a bribe ect. Please do not try to soften your mistakes as you are doing now in the newspaper and on television. You and the people you abstain from as a party a bunch of liars. Just take it on the chin step down and give it to someone who knows how to do border control, keep the illegal immigrants out and to do their work properly.

  • David Luis - 2013-11-19 12:18

    “ in what The Witness has established is only the fifth confirmed seizure of smuggled uranium in South Africa in the past 20 years."... this only means that in 20 years they caught three people smuggling Uranium, how much has gone undetected????

  • Winifred Watson - 2013-11-19 12:32

    Oh dear, now we have to trace the lead, any ideas which door will be named.

  • Penelope Mthembu - 2013-11-19 20:49

    They where also carrying ecstasy, Chances are this toxic 'yellow cake' powder will be used in enhancing some drug tht will be sold 2 our youth..

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