How Not to Smuggle Yellowcake

In China there is a long-standing black-market in Uranium, smuggled out of state mines and sold across Asia and the sub-continent. The nuclear Djinn is out of the bottle, never to be placed back inside. It’s only a matter of time before more states become nuclear capable, no matter how hard we press for non-proliferation.

This horror story of smuggling from the Syndney Morning Herald tells a sad tale of smugglers who thought they could protect themselves from radiation with … Carbon paper. 

Meanwhile, three sorry peasants and a mine worker spent last Tuesday in a Guangzhou courtroom charged with uranium trafficking.

According to Chinese journalists, who relayed to the Herald what they could not publish, all four appeared pale and lethargic and had ghost-white hair. Unfortunately, two other accused uranium traffickers could not attend court because they were suffering from a variety of diseases.

So, how do you establish a uranium smuggling racket in China? First, according to the defendants’ courtroom testimony, you become friendly with someone high up in a “military-controlled” mine in the mountainous southern province of Yunnan. That person – Old Zhou as he was known in court – gives you eight kilograms of uranium-235 and uranium-238 on a “no-money-down” basis.

Zhou was to receive 200,000 yuan ($32,000) a kilogram and the defendants would keep any additional profit. Zhou is apparently being tried separately.

Second, according to one of the defendants, Yang Guoliang, you carefully pack the uranium in plastic bags, wrap the bags in an old cloth and then package it all in carbon duplicate paper. Apparently, the carbon paper is meant to be a nuclear-proof safety feature, as recommended by one of Old Zhou’s former professors.

You then have your uranium sampled at the Chenzhou uranium mine in central China’s Hunan province. And if you are not happy with the 46.7 per cent purity reading, you can purify it yourself. “I loaded the samples and Zhang and I used a sieve, a sieve screen,” explained one of the smugglers, Yang Guoliang.

His collaborator, Zhang Sangang, now has tuberculosis. It seems the smugglers were dealing with yellowcake, or uranium oxide, rather than the refined product. The uranium sample, now 56.7 per cent pure, according to a colleague in Hunan, is packed into a small plastic bottle and the bottle is carefully placed in a shirt pocket.

The rest of the story outlines the black market, North Korea’s shopping efforts, and the future of Australian sales efforts to the Chinese. This is why Ballistic Missile Defense initiatives are so important.