South African police have arrested four men for trying to sell radioactive material that could be used to produce a so-called “dirty bomb.”
The four, all from South Africa and aged between 35 and 50, were arrested in a sting operation by the Hawks specialised tactical unit following police infiltration of a criminal organisation, according to Independent Online. Interpol was apparently also involved in the arrest.
The Hawks recovered shielded Caesium-137 and are seeking a larger device, which, together with the radioactive material, was set to be sold for six million dollars. The site of the arrest, at an undisclosed Pretoria petrol station, has been sealed off by a field team of nuclear specialists who took air samples and conducted tests on the radioactive isotope.
Caesium-137 is radioactive isotope (radioisotope) of Caesium and is toxic in even small amounts. It is soluble in water and can be difficult to detect. It is used in small amounts for radiation testing and for some medical applications.
The isotope would make an effective component of a so-called “dirty bomb,” a device which is made up of a normal explosive like TNT and a radioactive isotope. When the bomb explodes, the area it affects becomes contaminated and people coming into contact with surfaces or water containing the radioisotope could become seriously ill or even die.
Caesium-137 was released into the atmosphere during the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown and was one of the three most toxic radioisotopes in the disaster.
Dirty bombs are used primarily to created terror in populations, as the explosion itself is no worse than that produced by regular explosives, but the fear of radiation sickness could cause panic.
A policeman who was not named said:
"We don't know what these suspects' intentions were and we need to find the device quickly."
The suspects will appear in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court to face charges of theft, possession f a radioactive device and violation of health regulations pertaining to nuclear material.