A nuclear threat lurks in the lawless hinterlands of the former Soviet republics
Tamila Chaduneli holds a picture of her son Amiran, who was caught attempting to sell highly radioactive uranium in Georgia

ONE NIGHT LAST SPRING, AMIRAN CHADUNELI, A FLEA-MARKET TRADER IN THE EX–SOVIET REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA, MET WITH TWO STRANGERS ON A BRIDGE AT THE EDGE OF KOBULETI, A SMALL TOWN ON THE COUNTRY’S BLACK SEA COAST. Over the phone, the men had introduced themselves as foreigners—one Turkish, the other Russian—and they were looking for an item so rare on the black market that it tends to be worth more, ounce for ounce, than gold. Chaduneli knew where to get it. He didn’t know that his clients were undercover cops.

From the bridge, he took them to inspect the merchandise at a nearby apartment where his acquaintance had been storing it: a lead box about the size of a smartphone, containing a few pounds of radioactive uranium, including small amounts of the weapons-grade material known as uranium-235. The stash wasn’t nearly enough to make a nuclear weapon. But if packed together with high explosives, these metallic lumps could produce what’s known as a dirty bomb—one that could poison the area around the blast zone with toxic levels of radiation.

In the popular culture, the dealers who traffic in such cargo are usually cast as lords of war with tailored suits and access to submarines. The reality is much less cinematic. According to police records reviewed by TIME in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Chaduneli’s associates in the attempted uranium sale last spring included construction workers and scrap-metal traders. Looking at the sunken cheeks and lazy left eye in his mug shot, it seems improbable that lousy capers like this one could rise to the level of a national-security threat. But the ease of acquiring ingredients for a dirty bomb is precisely what makes them so worrying.

AS THE NUMBER of nuclear-armed countries has grown from at least five to

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