CHISINAU, Moldova – The sample of highly-enriched uranium, of a type that could be used in a nuclear bomb, arrived here on a rainy summer day four years ago, in a blue shopping bag carried by a former policeman.
According to court documents, the bag quickly passed through the hands of three others on its way to a prospective buyer. It was not the first time such material had passed through this city, raising international alarms: It had happened twice before. And mysteriously, in all three cases, spanning more than a decade, the nuclear material appeared to have the same origin – a restricted military installation in Russia.
This news would quickly reach Washington. But that day, the first to pick up the blue bag was the wife of a former Russian military officer, who handed it off to a friend while she went shopping in this former Soviet city’s ragged downtown.
Not long afterward, a 57-year old lawyer named Teodor Chetrus, from a provincial town near the Ukrainian border, retrieved it and brought it to a meeting with a man named Ruslan Andropov. According to an account by Moldovan police, the two men had, earlier in the day, visited a local bank, where Chetrus confirmed that Andropov had deposited more than $330,000 as an initial payment.
Andropov next examined the contents of the bag: a lead-lined cylinder, shaped like a thermos. It was meant to be the first of several shipments of highly-enriched uranium totaling 10 kilograms (22 lbs), a senior investigator here said. That’s about a fifth of what might be needed to fuel a Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosion — but almost enough to power a more technically-advanced “implosion-style” nuclear bomb.
But then, abruptly, Chetrus’s participation with this group of shadowy characters in the illicit sale of nuclear explosive materials — the stuff of nightmares at the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House — went awry.
Andropov turned out to be working with Moldovan police, who were monitoring communications between those involved, with advice from the U.S. embassy in Chishinau. On June 27, 2011, they swooped in. Photos of the arrests show a policeman in a ski mask holding a Kalashnikov while Chetrus knelt on a sidewalk in front of the bank. He would eventually be sentenced to five years in prison.
Chetrus’s arrest ended one of four attempts in the past five years by Moldovan residents to smuggle dangerous nuclear materials into the hands of unscrupulous buyers. But his capture did not ease the concerns of Western intelligence services.
Instead, it stoked them, because the resulting international probe into the case has sparked fresh, and previously unreported worries, that 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 sixteen years, by repeatedly dangling in front of them identical, genuine samples of that highly valuable material.
Five current or former U.S. officials who have tracked nuclear smuggling, and who declined to be named because this assessment is classified, said it is now a consensus view within the intelligence community.
But no one in the West knows exactly who has this nuclear explosive material, and where they may be.
It’s a mystery that so far has stumped America’s best spying efforts, in no small measure because the government of Russian president Vladimir Putin has refused to provide needed information on the case – or even to acknowledge that some of the country’s nuclear explosive materials are missing.