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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - The arrests of three men who allegedly tried to sell contraband uranium for $1-million show how a shadowy black market for nuclear components has survived despite tightened security at nuclear facilities worldwide, experts said Thursday.
Slovak police said the material, believed to have originated in the former Soviet Union, was highly dangerous and could have been used in a radiological "dirty bomb" or other terrorist weapon.
U.N. and independent experts suggested the uranium may not have been near that lethal. But officials tracking the illicit global trade in radioactive materials said the arrests underscored the risk of nuclear substances falling into terrorist hands.
Should that happen, "the consequences would be so catastrophic, the world would be a different place the next day," said Richard Hoskins, who supervises a database of stolen, missing, smuggled or unauthorized radioactive materials for the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In 2006, the U.N. nuclear watchdog registered 252 reported cases - a 385 percent increase since 2002. Hoskins cautioned that the spike probably was due in part to better reporting and improved law enforcement efforts. Of the 252 cases, about 85 involved thefts or losses, and not all the material was suitable for use in a weapon, he said.
But this week's arrests heightened long-standing concerns that Eastern Europe is serving as a source of radioactive material for terrorists and criminals.
The suspects, two Hungarians and a Ukrainian who were arrested Wednesday in eastern Slovakia and Hungary, were trying to sell about a pound of uranium in powder form, said 1st Police Vice President Michal Kopcik.
Investigators were still working to determine who was trying to buy the uranium.
[Last modified November 30, 2007, 01:44:12]