I'm currently on my lunch break and deep in the Wikipedia hole which brought me to this article that details thwarted nuclear smuggling incidents in 1993/6. Many of the incidents involve elements that would not be useful for the production of a nuclear/dirty weapon but a minority of them involve significant quantities of Plutonium/enriched Uranium.

Working on the assumption that only a fraction of these smuggling attempts were busted, this suggests that quite a large amount of material (potentially enough for a nuclear warhead and certainly enough to make a dirty bomb) probably made its way in to the wrong hands. I'm not aware of any incidents of nuclear terrorism since then so I suppose my question is, who was buying it and why hasn't it turned up since?

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    If your assumption that "only a fraction of these smuggling attempts were busted" is true then it's entirely possible that no one knows who was buying it and therefore where it has gone.
    – Steve Bird
    May 31, 2019 at 12:11
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    There is/was a "Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft, and Orphan Radiation Sources" which was set up & maintained by Stanford University. IIRC, Iran and North Korea were listed as major destinations. May 31, 2019 at 12:25
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    @SteveBird - It would be somewhat reasonable to assume it was likely bound for the same destinations as the thwarted attempts.
    – T.E.D.
    May 31, 2019 at 12:46
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    Added Warsaw Pact to the tags, as a lot of the materials in the linked text were from non-Soviet Warsaw Pact nations like Romania and Lithuania. That being said, I believe both entities had dissolved by then, so both tags are a bit of an anachronism.
    – T.E.D.
    May 31, 2019 at 14:01

3 Answers 3


A team of researchers at the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University compiled the "Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft, and Orphan Radiation Sources" (DSTO) in 2002. At the time, that database was described as the:

"... most reliable currently available data on illicit trafficking of weapons-usable nuclear material"

In 2002, the DSTO database included details of over 700 known incidents of the illicit trafficking of nuclear material between 1991 and 2002.

Since 2004, the database has been operated at the University of Salzburg and in 2010 contained details of over 2440 cases [Lyudmila Zaitseva: Nuclear Trafficking: 20 Years in Review, 2010].

The DSTO database was the primary source used in the 2003 report: Nuclear Smuggling Chains: Suppliers, Intermediaries, and End-Users, by Lyudmila Zaitseva and Kevin Hand of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University. That report presented the results of an attempt to analyse :

"... the supply and demand sides in nuclear smuggling, as well as intermediaries between them"

It identified five main groups of potential 'end users' on the basis of those who had been named as buyers in the known incidents. These groups were:

  1. Proliferating States
  2. Terrorist Organisations
  3. Religious Sects
  4. Separatist Movements
  5. Criminal Groups and Individuals

Examples from each group are quoted in the report.

The specific examples of proliferating states that could be identified were

  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • North Korea

These were not the only states involved. They were simply:

"... the most frequently reported destinations for the smuggled nuclear, radioactive, and nuclear-related dual-use material.

In terms of numbers of incidents:

"Iran and Iraq are both mentioned in 10 cases, “a Middle Eastern country” in 7 cases, and North Korea in 6 cases"

Note, however, that this accounts for just 33 of the 700 incidents in the DSTO database (a little under 5%).

A more recent analysis of the DSTO data was presented in the chapter 'Illicit Trafficking in Radioactive Materials' in the book Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khah and the Rise of Proliferation Networks, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Dossier, London, 2007. pp 119-138.

In many cases, the authors found that the immediate destination for smuggled material appears to have been Turkey, although this was believed to be a stage on the smuggling route, rather than an end-user.

This report explicitly identified the following countries as destinations for 'smuggled nuclear resources' that had been named in open sources:

  • Iran (6 cases)
  • Libya (5 cases)
  • Pakistan (4 cases)
  • North Korea (3 cases)
  • 'Middle East' (7 cases)
  • Is there an estimate of the "quantities of Plutonium/enriched Uranium" thought to have been smuggled? Jun 2, 2019 at 16:27
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    @KeithMcClary None that I'm aware of in the public domain. Quantities known to have been recovered have been (at least) in the tens of kilograms - with more than 6 kg of Pu-239 recovered in just one incident in Germany in 1994. Jun 2, 2019 at 17:13

Nuclear material actually isn't all that useful, unless you also have the resources to design, build and operate your own power plants or nuclear bombs. Generally only full-blown state actors have that level of resources.

For that reason, its generally felt that the only reason a terrorist organization would be looking to acquire that kind of material would be to build a dirty bomb (a normal bomb, designed to spread the highly radioactive material over a large area, rather than actually performing nuclear fission with it.) That would be fairly easy. Since no terrorist organization has actually done that, the assumption in foreign policy circles is they probably haven't acquired enough to do even that effectively. Possibly none at all.

That leaves state actors. It turns out, thanks to Abdul Khan, we know exactly who was in the market for illicit nuclear tech 1990's: Iran, North Korea, and Libya.

Khan was effectively the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapon technology, and he, with at least some support from the Bhuto government, clearly felt no compunction against helping other countries do what his had done. When Iran agreed to inspections in the early 2000's, UN inspectors found records tracing back to Khan, which in the end exposed his entire "ring".

Now this being said, there are other state actors operating outside of the NPT who were not friendly with Khan's Pakistan (eg: Israel and India). Theoretically, if one of them were to be operating in this gray market, it wouldn't have shown up in Khan's records. However, the ones we have definitive evidence for are Iran, North Korean, and Libya.

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    Given that both Israel and India had nukes since 1970-ies, your last sentence implicating them appears to be out of place.
    – sds
    May 31, 2019 at 14:49
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    I mentioned them because they have programs outside of the NPT, and while they had both (in Israel's case probably) reached the finish line for a single bomb by the 90's, you need a pretty decent amount of enriched material to actually make bombs. That takes time to produce (and is somewhat externally detectible). The point of that paragraph is that its possible they would have been in the market for enriched material for more bombs, and due to political issues, Khan's not dealing with them isn't good evidence that they weren't (as it would be for a country like Syria).
    – T.E.D.
    May 31, 2019 at 14:55
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    @sds - Short version: That paragraph isn't meant to imply they were doing anything. Quite the opposite. It is there to point out that they do have some motive, and if they were, we wouldn't know about it through Khan. Clarified a bit (although doubling the size of a speculative paragraph pains me greatly).
    – T.E.D.
    May 31, 2019 at 15:02
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    @Richard I took his meaning as being that no terrorist has yet used a dirty bomb. It would almost certainly have made international news rather quickly if that had happened virtually anywhere.
    – reirab
    May 31, 2019 at 22:09
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    @Richard Assuming it was a significant enough dirty bomb to actually meet the purpose of a dirty bomb, I think the radiation poisoning would get noticed pretty quickly.
    – reirab
    May 31, 2019 at 22:20

There have been a couple of criminal activities involving these materials including an this and some of the other events here including two murders.

With the deep pockets of the governments trying to sidestep the NTP the most likely end location for bomb making materials are inside bombs in various places with criminal/terrorist organizations just plain being outbid or selling what they had for conventional weapons, so the final breakdown would be as per T.E.D's answer.

Complicating this would be the whole red mercury thing that was plausibly taking money from the uninformed just trying to buy 'nuclear bomb stuff' at random and making those actually knowing what they were doing more cautious.

Significant now for these items made in the USSR and lost in the 90s is half life. While Plutonium for cores has a reasonable shelf life, it is plausible that a 40 year old core fired now in it's original form would be a fizzle (destroys buildings but not cities) without access to reprocessing facilities of a nation with an existing weapons program.

In terms of dirty bombs many of the irradiation sources and other industrial materials that went missing had half lives in the years, so while not necessarily safe would be far less dangerous now then when they initially went missing having halved in rate many times in the intervening time.

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