In a troubling disclosure, the Russian Federal Customs Service has revealed that authorities thwarted more than 850 attempts to smuggle highly radioactive materials in and out of Russia in 2007. Eighty-five percent of these smuggling attempts were going into the country, and 15 percent were going out.
The figures are likely to fuel fears about how many illegal exports were not detected, and what the potential dangers of such radioactive materials can be. In December last year, police in Slovakia arrested three people, who were attempting to sell 2.2 pounds of uranium for $1 million. Meanwhile, Britain continues to demand the extradition of Russian MP, Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the poisoning of former KGB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed with radioactive polonium-210 in London in November 2006.
Radioactive materials are not hard to come by in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). During the Soviet era, more than 15 different agencies had access to radioactive materials, from the Ministry of Geology to Metallurgy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is little knowledge of where all these radioactive materials ended up.
In addition, following the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, there is still a large piece of contaminated land which has not been fenced off. Vladimir Chuprov, who heads the energy section of Russian Greenpeace, told ABC News that a significant part of confiscated radioactive materials come from this area.
"Part of what is brought in comes from Chernobyl and the zone around Chernobyl," he said. "If there was no Chernobyl, there would be no problem with radioactive materials."
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, told ABC News that a blackmarket for radioactive materials does exist in Russia but that it is not very serious and does not pose any great risk.
"What happens quite often is that those involved sell the stuff to each other -- and often to the criminal underworld. This is radioactive material -- not nuclear, not enriched plutonium and nothing to do with nuclear weapons."
Chuprov though cautions against dismissing the danger of these radioactive materials.
"A part of this material is uranium. It is not nuclear, but nevertheless it can be enriched to a nuclear level. Uranium is in demand by terrorist groups," he warned.
According to the Customs Service report, state-of-the-art, Russian monitoring systems have made it possible to detect radiation which is higher than the background level with great precision. The Federal Customs Service plans to equip all customs posts in the Russian Federation with this equipment before 2010.
Malcolm Grimston, an associate fellow on nuclear policy with Chatham House, told ABC News that it is a good sign that Russia is raising the issue and talking publicly about it.
"Russians are very serious about improving the system," he said. "They are to be congratulated for that." Clarissa Ward is reporting from Moscow.Alexandra Nadezhdina contributed to this report.