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Central Asia a radioactive hotbed

©Associated Press
June 15, 2002

A passenger toted a 20-pound stash of radioactive thorium powder onto a bus in his luggage. Another smuggler, unwisely, stuck a highly radioactive capsule in his trousers pocket as he boarded a flight. Chechen rebels were the apparent customers for stolen radium in a third case.

The new nations of Central Asia have become a traffickers' marketplace for radioactive materials. It was the place Jose Padilla headed to, Pakistani investigators say, when the al-Qaida suspect sought the stuff of a "dirty bomb."

Confronting the threat is a big job, but the U.S. government has sent detection equipment to border posts in the vast region and is training customs officers in intercepting nuclear contraband.

Pakistani officials said Padilla, now in U.S. custody, traveled to a Central Asian country in April hoping to buy radioactive materials. The American had conferred with senior members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network about detonating a radiation weapon, or "dirty bomb," in the United States, U.S. authorities say.

Such a device would not be a nuclear bomb, with its devastating fission explosion, but instead would set off conventional explosives to scatter harmful radioactive material, contaminating and panicking people and forcing abandonment of parts of cities.

The Pakistani officials would not say whether Padilla was successful in obtaining radioactive substances, nor would they identify the country he was said to have visited. U.S. officials, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the United States had no such information and questioned whether the reported mission took place.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly independent Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan -- have dealt with a legacy of abandoned nuclear materials and of facilities left poorly staffed after Russian specialists went home.

The only nuclear weapons in the region, in Kazakhstan, were withdrawn to Russia in the 1990s. In 1994, a half-ton of highly enriched uranium -- raw material of nuclear bombs -- was spirited out of Kazakhstan in a U.S. operation.

But material for possible "dirty bombs" remains scattered and often poorly controlled in the region -- the cesium, strontium, cobalt and other radioactive substances used in medicine and industry, the low-grade uranium and radioactive waste of nuclear power plants.

"Protecting against radioactive sources is much harder than securing nuclear materials," said Dmitry Kovchegin, a nuclear proliferation specialist at Moscow's Center for Policy Studies. "It's not so hard to create a dirty bomb."

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