Georgia detains two for trying to sell radioactive uranium: statement

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia said on Wednesday it had detained two people for handling and trying to sell $2.8 million worth of radioactive uranium-238, which can be developed into nuclear bomb material.

Western leaders have been concerned about the security of Soviet nuclear weapon materials since the 1991 break-up of the Communist colossus. Ex-Soviet Georgia has since foiled several attempts to sell uranium or other radioactive materials.

Uranium-238 is the least radioactive uranium isotope and makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium. It cannot be used to produce the chain reaction needed for nuclear weapons, which uranium-235 is suitable for.

In disclosing the arrests in the Georgian Black Sea town of Kobuleti, the state security service did not say whether the two, whom it said were part of a criminal gang, had a buyer for the uranium-238 or where they had acquired it.

"The object seized as a result of a search of the detainees has undergone forensic tests which concluded that the total weight of the object is 40.19 grams and it contains radioactive isotope uranium-238," security service investigator Savle Motiashvili told a briefing.

"The seized substance poses life and health hazards."

He said the two suspects faced 5-10 years in prison if convicted of trafficking such radioactive materials.

U-238 can be used in some nuclear reactors to produce plutonium-239, which is usable in nuclear weapons, but that requires advanced technical knowledge. It is the isotope most present in depleted uranium, a dense material used in armor-piercing munitions.

In sufficient concentrations, U-238 can be poisonous if ingested but the radiation risks from external exposure are limited.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by Mark Heinrich)