LOST: A Nuclear Bomb’s Worth of Highly Enriched Uranium

A biscuit of reduced uranium from the Manhattan Project (Photo: Wikimedia)

One of the worst-case scenarios for a terrorist attack in a dense urban place involves stolen nuclear material.

Occasionally, reports pop up of nuclear material being available on the black market or being smuggled from country to country, as part of an illicit sale. In a new report, the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, details one such smuggling case. Though the deal was stopped by Moldovan police, the case convinced nuclear experts that there’s a dangerously large amount of lost uranium still out there, CPI reports.

According to the investigative outlet:

“thieves inside of Russia somehow made off years ago with a full bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium. Western spies fear the thieves have been doggedly looking for a buyer for the past 15 years, by repeated dangling in front of them identical, genuine samples of that highly valuable material.”

The most recent foiled attempt to sell this material happened in 2011, in Moldova, where a shopping bag full of highly enriched uranium was being sold as part of multiple planned shipment of the  element totaling 22 lbs. That deal was stopped by law enforcement, but an analysis of the seized material showed that it came from the same source as highly enriched uranium seized in 1999 and 2001, the Center reports.

That material was dated to October of 1993, a time when political turmoil in the former Soviet Union made security lax and, as the Center explains, it was not uncommon for workers to try to make off with uranium. Investigators believe, though, that these particular thieves made off with enough highly enriched uranium to construct a nuclear bomb. As far as anyone knows, it’s still out there somewhere. 

Bonus finds: Hundreds of silver barsa trove of Holocaust documents sealed into a wall, Greek papyrus New Testament, being sold on eBay

Every day, we highlight one newly lost or found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something unusual or amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.