Nov 29- Alarms over international nuclear smuggling were raised last night when Slovak police announced that three men had been arrested in Slovakia and Hungary after allegedly trying to sell a kilogram of radioactive material.
A Slovak police spokesman told journalists that the authorities in Slovakia and Hungary had been monitoring the activities of the alleged nuclear traders for several months before arresting them. They were detained in eastern Slovakia and eastern Hungary, near the common borders with Ukraine.
Police declined to provide any details of the radioactive substance, but said they had seized the material and sent it for examination. The location of the operation suggested that the material had been smuggled from the former Soviet Union, either Russia or Ukraine.
Western officials have been concerned for years about the risk of nuclear smuggling from the former Soviet Union, although US-funded safeguarding programmes have been effective in reducing the danger of nuclear trading.
Officials at the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, said they knew little about the reported incident across Austria's border in Slovakia, but that the agency's nuclear security department would be looking into the matter urgently.
Police said they would supply more details about the case today. The main Slovak news agency reported that the material involved was enriched uranium but there were no indications of the degree of enrichment.
Low enriched uranium is used for nuclear power plant fuel, while weapons-grade uranium is highly enriched. In 2002 it emerged that Iran had been conducting an illicit nuclear programme for 18 years, greatly helped by the disgraced metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan's Pakistan-based smuggling racket.
Khan was found to have been privately channelling nuclear materials and equipment to Iran, North Korea, and Libya.
Slovak police said that the detained men had been attempting to sell the radioactive material for $1.29m