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Explained: ATS seizes 7kg uranium worth Rs 21 crore from a scrap dealer; here’s what happened

Why is uranium, a radioactive metal, used generally by nuclear power plants, being sold illegally?

Maharashtra ATS office in Mumbai. (File photo)

The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) on Thursday arrested two persons with 7 kg natural uranium estimated to be worth around Rs 21 crore. Prior to this, in 2016 the Thane police too had arrested two persons with depleted uranium. Why is uranium, a radioactive metal, used generally by nuclear power plants, being sold illegally?

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What is the case involving the smuggling of uranium in which ATS made two arrests?

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Two persons, Jigar Pandya (27) and Abu Tahir (31), were arrested by Maharashtra ATS on Thursday. Both were trying to illegally sell off 7 kg uranium for around Rs 25 crore online when the ATS team sent a dummy customer and got a sample. The sample was sent to Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) which, on Wednesday, in its report, said the material sent was natural uranium following which the duo were placed under arrest under the Atomic Energy Act of 1962 for possessing uranium without licence.

What exactly is uranium and what are its uses?

Uranium occurs naturally in low concentrations in soil, rock and water and is commercially extracted from uranium-bearing minerals. Uranium that has a silvery grey metallic appearance is mainly used in nuclear power plants due to its unique nuclear properties. Depleted uranium is also used as shield against radiation in medical processes using radiation therapy and also while transporting radioactive materials. Though itself radioactive, uranium’s high density makes it effective in halting radiation. Its high density also makes it useful as counterweights in aircraft and industrial machinery.

In this particular incident, where did the duo procure the uranium from?

Tahir’s father owns a scrap shop in Mankhurd. It is suspected that nearly two years ago, a truck with factory refuse had been sold to them. It also contained uranium that was heavy and looked different than the usual industrial waste. Tahir then stored it and spoke about it with Pandya during the ongoing lockdown. Pandya is believed to have used his contacts to confirm that the material was uranium and commanded a high value in the grey market. As they were trying to sell the 7kg uranium online for Rs 25 crores online, the ATS found out about it. While initially the ATS thought it was a case of fraud, it was after the BARC report it was confirmed the material was actually uranium.

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Have there been cases in the past where arrests in such cases have been made?

The Thane police in 2016 had arrested two persons with 8 kg Depleted Uranium (DU) worth around Rs 24 crore. In that case too, one of the arrested accused was a scrap dealer. Former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar said factories using uranium as a counterweight in their machines are mandated to contact the Atomic Energy agencies and return the uranium to them. They, however, resort to shortcuts and sell the entire machines along with uranium in scrap.

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