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VICE news has published a video where they claim to be following up on a story of a French journalist who set up an arms deal: supposedly he bought (or at least set everything in place so that he could have bought) a nuclear warhead of an old soviet arsenal. According to the story the journalist brought an ex Soviet military expert with him who judged the deal 'credible'.

VICE: How to Buy Nukes on the Black Market

I am wondering:

  • Are there other sources who can confirm or deny this story?
  • Does somebody have the story of the original French journalist?
  • If it was actually this easy, how is this not more of a problem? How is this not bigger news?
  • The video is a story about a story. Not much factual content. I don't see a claim here. "Why would he even talk to you? Because we gave him money." And because this Ivanov likes bragging about how important he is, putting up a public image. "We found the dude who sold it". No: "We found the dude who said he sold it". They are also mixing the terms 'dirty bomb' and 'plutonium detonator'. The latter on its own without an actual nuclear device could act as a dirty bomb, but it will not be made from waste nuclear material. A real 'dirty bomb' would. – Jan Doggen Sep 29 '15 at 12:32
  • @Jan Doggen: Agree with all your points. That's why I'd like to get more information. – fgysin Sep 29 '15 at 12:47
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Per Todorzhivkov regarding the story of the French journalist buying a warhead in Sliven,

Multiple cases have been recorded, including a French journalist with a ballistic missile compatible warhead, along with an artillery shell version bought from Mafioso’s with 152mm plutonium stuffed warheads which supposedly came from the arms dump in Sliven both of which were bought in 2007. These were supposedly confiscated within the country (unlikely that the journalist could or would want to sneak them out of the country for non-existent purposes, meaning that local authorities must have confiscated them), and the warheads are now secured by Bulgarian authorities but do not seem to be ratified.

Nuclear black market information is already tracked per information reported to the ITDB (Incident and Trafficking Database) of the International Atomic Energy,

  1. The availability of unsecured nuclear and other radioactive material persists.
  2. Effective border control measures help to detect illicit trafficking, although effective control is not uniformly implemented at all international border points.
  3. Individuals and groups are prepared to engage in trafficking this material.

Per Lyudmila Zaitseva in 2010

If organised crime were to engage in nuclear trafficking upon request from a potential customer, their operations would be difficult to discover and interdict, because the criminals would avoid the most vulnerable stage of trafficking - looking for a buyer.

The major players on the supply-driven market are the actual suppliers, i.e., employees of nuclear facilities, which produce or handle fissile material. Another category of players on the supply side of the nuclear black market is intermediaries, whose task is to find the customer and transfer the material to the end destination. The end-user market for radioactive substances is small and uncertain in comparison. Once the material is stolen and handed over to such a network, there is very little that can stop it, unless, of course, the theft is detected and the authorities are alerted. Unfortunately, the practice shows that most thefts of nuclear material go unnoticed at the source.

Per IISS Strategic Dossier on nuclear black markets, nukes were known to exist for sale through black market to the whole world when a Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was arrested on 31 January 2004 for being part of a black market network that had sold nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea, Libya and he was also claimed to offer the technology to Iraq and possibly other, as yet unknown, countries.

In 1972, the year Khan received his Ph.D., he got a job in the Dutch offices of URENCO, a newly formed international consortium dedicated to manufacturing centrifuge technology that joined together enterprises in Britain, Germany, and Holland. Khan became the interpreter of technical and highly classified documents between German and Dutch since during his studies he had learned German and Dutch. While in Pakistan for a holiday, he was then given an audience with Bhutto, who immediately put him in charge of a program aimed at using centrifuges to enrich uranium to levels sufficient for a bomb. He returned to Holland soon after to gather more information, and by the time he came back to Pakistan in 1975, he had stolen the essential designs and parts of the URENCO centrifuge technology.

Khan later made a public confession on Pakistani television regarding his illegal nuclear dealings and claimed that he initiated the transfers based on an "error of judgment." Following these disclosures, in early March 2005, Pakistan acknowledged A. Q. Khan had provided centrifuges to Iran, though it denied having had any knowledge of the transactions. In May 2008, A.Q. Khan publicly stated that elements of his confession relating to proliferation to various countries including Iran had been coerced and otherwise fabricated.

Known nuclear smuggling incidents are mentioned here. Areas of particular concern also include the Russian black market in uranium and plutonium. The former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan still have stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Ukraine and Kazakhstan also have nuclear power plants the byproducts of which cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb but might indirectly tempt terrorists trying to buy and make a claimed "nuclear dirty bomb" which is a regular explosive laced with lower-grade radioactive material.

Per CFR, the following countries could be trading nuclear information on the black market:

  1. Pakistan, where some of Khan's associates and military elements are thought to be sympathetic to Islamic extremism;
  2. Countries in the former Soviet Union, including Russia and the Ukraine, from which nuclear materials could be stolen;
  3. India, which has a much better security record on proliferation than Pakistan but what experts call insufficient security for its nuclear program;
  4. China
  5. North Korea.

Also stolen or retrieved nuclear material from lost warhead incidents is also of a major concern.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported more than four hundred nuclear smuggling incidents since 1993, sixteen of which involved highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient in an atomic bomb and the most dangerous product on the nuclear black market.

From January 1993 to December, 2013, a total of 2477 incidents were reported to the ITDB by participating States and some non-participating States. Of the 2477 confirmed incidents, 424 involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activities. Incidents included in this category involved illegal possession, movement or attempts to illegally trade in or use nuclear material or radioactive sources. Sixteen incidents in this category involved high enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. There were 664 incidents reported that involved the theft or loss of nuclear or other radioactive material and a total of 1337 cases involving other unauthorized activities, including the unauthorized disposal of radioactive materials or discovery of uncontrolled sources.

During 2013, 1461 incidents were confirmed to the ITDB. Of these, 6 involved possession and related criminal activities, 47 involved theft or loss and 95 involved other unauthorized activities. There were also five incidents involving IAEA Category 1-3 radioactive sources, four of which were thefts.

Per William Langewiesche in an Atlantic column, "It wouldn’t be easy. But it wouldn’t be impossible."

  • "nuclear weapons technology" is not nuclear weapons. It can be anything from a centrifuge for enriching uranium to a high precision trigger for firing explosives with extreme accuracy, to certain types of electronics and chemical solvents, and a lot more. – jwenting Feb 12 at 10:11

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