Uranium containers
Workers place a container with highly enriched uranium on a truck at a nuclear research facility in Kiev, Ukraine, March 24, 2012. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian security services have prevented a criminal gang in the west of the country from selling a small piece of ore-grade Uranium after conducting an armed raid Wednesday. A Kiev government spokesperson said that the confiscated piece of nuclear material could not have been used directly to cause an explosion.

“Four members of a criminal group that was trying to sell the nuclear material were detained with the evidence in hand,” noted a Ukrainian security services statement. “According to preliminary information, the nuclear matter was uranium-238.”

The incident, which was first reported by Agence France-Presse, was immediately communicated to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The uranium-238 isotope is most frequently found in nature and is predominately mined in Canada, Kazakhstan and Australia. While it is radioactive, it would need to be specially adjusted through an intense scientific process to become the kind of uranium that can be used in a dirty bomb or nuclear explosion.

Members of a criminal gang stand in the stress position after being arrested by Ukrainian security services.
Ukrainian security services arrested a criminal gang that was trying to sell a piece of uranium. Security Services Of Ukraine

Just last week, Ukrainian media was rife with reports that pro-Russian rebels were attempting to build a dirty bomb of their own. “The DPR plans to use radioactive material to create a dirty bomb with which it can blackmail the international community and the government of Ukraine,” said Yuriy Tandit, chief adviser to Ukraine Security Services.

A dirty bomb, while not capable of causing the same destructive explosion as a traditional nuclear weapon, is a collection of nuclear matter that is detonated using normal explosives. It's designed to poison water supplies and air and cause panic among the general population.

Ukraine gave up all the nuclear weapons that it had left after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but there is still a large number of old nuclear facilities and decommissioned submarines left in the country. It’s not yet clear where the criminals got the uranium from.