PRAGUE, Czech Republic Nov. 15 — Undercover Czech officers arrested two Slovaks who tried to sell them nearly seven pounds of radioactive material in a sting operation, police said Saturday.
The potential uses of the substance remained unclear pending an investigation, with experts differing on whether it could possibly be used in a dirty bomb.
Police seized the suspects Friday in the Voronez hotel in the city of Brno, 125 miles southeast of Prague, police spokeswoman Blanka Kosinova said in a statement. The men were arrested as they counted the $700,000 they believed they had received for the sale.
Pavel Pittermann, a spokesman for the Czech nuclear safety office, said the first checks of four parcels containing the substance detected traces of thorium and uranium. While cautioning against jumping to conclusions, he said those two components could be used in a dirty bomb.
Later, Dana Drabova, the head of Pittermann’s agency, told Czech Radio that the material likely came from somewhere in the former Soviet bloc but that she doubted it had direct weapons applications.
Still, there is worldwide concern that terrorists might attempt to used smuggled radioactive material to build and detonate a dirty bomb, which would use conventional explosives to spread radioactivity over a wide area. Such a bomb would typically be packed with strontium, cesium or some other highly radioactive isotope used in medicine and industry.
No such device has been used anywhere, but the al-Qaida network is reported to have been interested in such a terror weapon.
Pittermann said the content of the parcels will be thoroughly checked in the coming days at the Nuclear Research Institute in Rez, just north of Prague, and that results could be expected in the middle of the next week.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said it was following up on the seizure.
The two suspects, from the eastern Slovak town of Presov, face up to 15 years in prison if tried on and convicted of illegal production and possession of radioactive material and a highly dangerous substance.