By many accounts, the most plausible dangers appear to be declining. For a start, an “overwhelming” number of buyers turn out to be undercover cops, says Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank. A sizeable network of informers helps Georgia’s interior ministry to keep a close eye on the four or five cells in the country currently trying to obtain or sell radiological material, says Mr Pavlenishvili. When one of them is lining up a potential deal, it is almost always because his or a foreign unit is preparing a sting operation, he adds. Mr Pavlenishvili’s unit has not got wind of a single profitable sale – Georgia’s underworld makes its money on other crimes such as drug-running.
Considering the growing risk and persistent lack of money to be made, it is amazing that smugglers continue to give it a shot, says Lyudmila Zaitseva, an academic working on a University of Salzburg database on nuclear and radiological trafficking.
Many traffickers no doubt reckon that terror groups will pay dearly for dirty-bomb ingredients. After all, counterterrorism officials citing seized al-Qaeda documents have said as much. Yet although a terrorist-made dirty bomb of mass destruction cannot be excluded, it remains unlikely. For one thing, rooting around to obtain dangerously radioactive material is a great way to attract the attention of the authorities. A bust could doom a painstakingly assembled terror cell.
In any case, most of the stuff being peddled is fraudulent rather than dangerous, says Adrian Baciu, head of the Romanian police’s nuclear and radiological unit until 2004 (he later worked for four years in Interpol’s counter-terrorism directorate). To hype their products, sellers typically describe it as material used in a nuclear bomb, a reactor, the Space Shuttle or the like. “Excuse my language … just bullshit,” says Mr Baciu. In one sting, he arrested four men trying to sell, for several hundred thousand dollars, material from a calibration kit for radiation-detection equipment. It could be safely handled with cotton gloves. Another cell tried to pass off as dangerously radioactive a piece of ordinary iron. Trafficking in Romania, he says, has tapered to almost nothing.