Georgia made public details of its sting operation, which, it said, in March 2010 led to seizure of 18 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU), thought to be a sample of a larger stash.
Nuclear smuggling unit at the Georgian Interior Ministry revealed details to the Western press with The Guardian and The Association Press putting up the stories about the case almost simultaneously late on Sunday.
Georgia first announced about seizure of “small amount” of highly enriched uranium at a nuclear security summit in Washington in April. The only detail that was made public at the time was that "a group of foreign nationals" were arrested in connection to the case.
According to the reports in The Guardian and The Associated Press at the center of the case are two Armenian citizens, who in March 2010 smuggled into Georgia 89.4% enriched uranium, encased in lead in a cigarette pack, which was hidden in Yerevan-Tbilisi train.
The two men, Sumbat Tonoyan and Hrant Ohanyan, thought they were about to sell thier sample to a buyer, who in fact was a Georgian undercover agent, as a precursor to a bigger consignment.
According to the Georgian officials Tonoyan and Ohanyan say they received the sample from Garik Dadaian, also an Armenian citizen, who was arrested in Georgia in 2003 while trying to smuggle 180 grams of highly enriched uranium to Georgia. He was then handed over to Armenia. Highly enriched uranium was again seized in Georgia in 2006 and in all these three cases, including the recent one, there seems to be evidence linking the stolen HEU to a nuclear fuel plant in Novosibirsk, Russia.
"Most likely, the materials were stolen in the mid- or early 90s when a big amount of material disappeared. It's hidden somewhere and from time to time, someone is trying to find new buyers," Archil Pavlenishvili, the head nuclear smuggling unit at the Georgian Interior Ministry, told The Guardian. "We think that the game is not over. There will be more attempts."
According to the Georgian officials both Tonoyan and Ohanyan pleaded guilty at a closed door trial and now face up to ten years in prison.
Pavlenishvili told The Associated Press that the lead casing of the smuggled uranium concealed it from the radiation detectors on the Georgian-Armenian border, although a larger quantity might have been detected.
The United States National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has been cooperating with Georgia since 2005 in frames of the Second Line of Defense Program, designed to help U.S. partners in strengthening the capabilities to prevent illicit trafficking of nuclear materials.
Since then the U.S. is providing Georgia with radiation detection equipment screening at airports, seaports and land border crossings. It is estimated that upon the program's completion 98% of trans-border traffic will be screened for nuclear and other radioactive materials, according to the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi.
Head of NNSA, Thomas P. D’Agostino, was in Georgia for a two-day visit in June, 2010.
In April, 2010 when Georgia first announced publicly that it had foiled illicit trafficking of HEU, the U.S. Department of State said that Georgia demonstrated "both a responsibility and a capability" to prevent flow of dangerous materials. "But we will look at to see what more needs Georgia has,” a spokesman for the Department of State said on April 22.