Special Report

Thank God for Bulgaria!

Border guards seize radioactive material on its way from the U.K. to a "dirty" nuclear bomb maker in Iran.

By 7.28.06

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Bulgaria seems an unlikely country to deserve the world's gratitude. But it appears we can thank the alertness and professionalism of the Bulgarian customs authorities for saving us -- and not for the first time -- from the consequences of the incredible, almost treasonous, ineptitude, dysfunctionalism and general lack of joined-up-thinking that appears to pervade every aspect of the governance of New Labour's Britain.

Bulgarian border guards recently seized a British truck carrying radioactive material -- to the Iranian military -- that could have been used to make a "dirty" nuclear bomb.

Smuggling? Not a bit of it! The material was being sent to Mr. Ahmadinejad quite legally and with the blessing of the British government.

After a scanner showed it had radiation levels 200 times normal, the truck was found to be carrying ten lead-lined boxes addressed to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Inside each was a soil-testing device containing radioactive caesium 137 and americum-beryllium. (Soil-testing is usually the province of agriculture, not defense, ministries.)

The head of the Bulgarian Nuclear Regulatory Agency (who knew until now that Bulgaria had a Nuclear Regulatory Agency?), Nikolai Todorov, said he was shocked that devices containing so much nuclear material could be sold so easily: "The devices are highly radioactive -- if you had another 90 of them you would be able to make an effective dirty bomb." That meant if nine similar loads got through.

According to the Daily Mail, Bulgarian customs official confirmed: "The documentation listed the shipment as destined for the Ministry of Transport in Tehran, although the final delivery address was the Iranian Ministry of Defence."

Radioactive material going to the Iranian Ministry of Defense? Could there possible be something a little, er, suspicious about this? Dr. Frank Barnaby of the Oxford Research Group (a well-credentialed think tank) said: "You would need a few of these devices to harvest material for a dirty bomb. Americum-beryllium is an extremely effective element for the construction of a dirty bomb as it has a very long half-life....It is found mainly in spent reactor-fuel elements and it is not at all easy to get hold of. I find it hard to believe it is so easily available ..."

British Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said: "The Prime Minister has accused the Iranian Government of sponsoring International terrorism, yet his officials are doing nothing to prevent radioactive material which has an obvious dual use being sold to their military." MacKinlay, interestingly, was subsequently attacked by the Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency as having allegedly expressed support for a terrorist group.

If this was a one-off incident, it would be a bad enough indictment of the present British Government. In fact it is only the latest of a series.

On August 31, 2005, a truck carrying 1,000 kg of zirconium silicate was stopped by Bulgarian authorities at the border with Turkey. The Bulgarians, detecting unusual radioactivity levels, discovered the truck was owned by a British firm, and alerted the British Embassy, which informed London on September 7. Although the trade in zirconium is meant to be tightly controlled, the truck had traveled through Britain, Germany and Romania without being stopped. The British authorities maintained there was nothing illegal about the shipment, and it was eventually allowed to proceed.

John Large, an independent nuclear consultant, said: "It is not a very sophisticated process to extract the zirconium from such material. Even though this cargo does not fall within international control, I would still be concerned. Zirconium is used for two purposes: for cladding nuclear fuel rods inside a reactor and as material for a nuclear weapon."

Questions were asked by MacKinlay (why the Tories apparently failed yet again to challenge Labour here is unknown) under the Freedom of Information legislation in January 2006. A gobbledygook answer from the government included the information that zirconium silicate did not require an export license but "may be controlled under the UK Weapons of Mass Destruction programme end-use control, which is assessed on a case by case basis." Mr. MacKinley then asked what definition of "end-user" and "expected end-user" the government used and received the answer that:

While there is no written definition of end-user or end-use information, the end-user is the entity for which the goods are ultimately destined, and the end-use is the use to which the goods will be put. Applicants are required to declare that the contents of their application and the supporting documentation are, to the best of their knowledge, accurate.

With that informative and reassuring reply Mr. MacKinley had to be content.

The bottom line was that a British firm had been allowed to sell highly-dangerous radioactive material to Iran without scrutiny by the British authorities, and then within a few months something very similar happened again, either in bizarre obeisance to some bureaucratic legalism ("it's not on the list"), or because no one cared. Of course, lethal respect for legalisms of this sort has some tradition behind it: during the Zulu War, a large British force was wiped out when attacked because the quartermasters would not issue ammunition without forms.

Previously, in May 1999, Bulgarian customs officers trained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection discovered highly-enriched Uranium U-235 concealed in an air-compressor in the trunk of a car at a border-crossing checkpoint. It was believed this was a sample to show prospective buyers.

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About the Author
Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.