Dirty bomb concerns in South Africa

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Anchor Marco Werman speaks with reporter Graeme Hosken in South Africa about five men arrested there for allegedly trying to sell a low-radiation industrial nuclear device. Officials have declined to comment on whether the device could be used to make a so-called 'dirty bomb.'

MARCO WERMAN: Elsewhere on the African continent, we're now learning of a possible intention to commit even deadlier violence. Five South African men appeared in court today in Pretoria. They were arrested for trying to sell a low-radiation industrial nuclear device. Officials have declined to comment on whether the device could be used to make a so-called ?dirty bomb.? Police are investigating to learn whether the suspects had links to any international network. Graeme Hosken is a reporter with the Pretoria News. Graeme, the suspects were in court today. What exactly are police saying these men were trying to sell?

GRAEME HOSKEN: What they've said is they were trying to sell a material called cesium-137. They appeared in court today on charges of being in possession of explosives and they also apparently going to be laying further charges against the men, including charges of theft and violating the Health Department's prohibition of handling this type of material in public.

WERMAN: It was a pretty dramatic scene apparently when these men were apprehended. Can you describe the arrests?

HOSKEN: Yes, it was actually very dramatic. It involved a massive shooting and the police had laid out a pretty well orchestrated operation with undercover agents and they'd set up a bogus transaction in which the suspects handed over a small quantity of the material to undercover agents. Following that there was police running all over the place and they opened fire on one of the men as he managed to elude the first trap and he was caught by an [INDISCERNABLE] of police officers and he ran down a busy intersection in an attempt to escape from the officers.

WERMAN: Now, apparently there was found to be no contamination, no cesium contamination in the area where this arrest happened. Does that indicate that the people who were dealing with this cesium-137 knew what they were doing?

HOSKEN: It looks like it. The police and bomb technicians and the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, their officials, their field survey team who were out there said the amount of cesium that was found, that was handed over during the transaction, was contained in a special container, apparently similar to a lead container to prevent the escape of radiation. They also said the amount that was recovered was actually a very small amount. And according to nuclear specialists here in South Africa, if it had been exposed, because of the size of the material, or the small amount of the material, it wouldn't have had much of an effect on people in the area.

WERMAN: Now, it was a cloud of cesium and iodine that leaked out of Chernobyl in the 1986 accident at that Soviet nuclear plant, but what is cesium-137?

HOSKEN: It's a material that is used in industrial or has ? is used for industrial purposes and medical purposes as well. The material that was taken, according to authorities and according to police contacts of mine, was used in the mining industry here in South Africa. We are still trying to establish exactly which mine this device comes from, but apparently from what we've learnt, the device is actually used to measure the depth of crushed rock and other sorts of materials. As I've said, from what we've been able to establish, it was taken from a mine here in South Africa.

WERMAN: And given that it was a small quantity of cesium-137, how much could these cesium dealers have gotten for the amount they were trying to sell?

HOSKEN: Well, the amount that they were trying to sell was actually a sample, so from what we've learned from authorities is that this was to prove that they actually had the device which had been stolen and the entire device was to be sold according to specialized police units here in South Africa, was to be sold for 45 million rand.

WERMAN: That's about 6 million dollars.

HOSKEN: Yeah, it's about ? it was 6, 7 million dollars, yes.

WERMAN: Graeme Hosken, a reporter with the Pretoria News. Thank you very much for the update.

HOSKEN: Pleasure.