Chişinau -- The traffickers knew they had valuable nuclear material to sell for a high price and they knew enough about its lethal nature to shield it in a lead canister.
But the authorities in Moldova, a small, ex-Soviet republic of less than four million people, were ahead of them. Working closely over several years with the IAEA, which provided advice, training and equipment, they had strengthened their defences against nuclear smuggling. Sharing information with counterparts in other countries, they set up a sting operation.
Police and other security officers arrested one of the traffickers as he sat in a leafy street in the centre of the capital, Chişinau, waiting to make a sale that he thought would bring in hundreds of thousands of euros. Several grammes of high-enriched uranium (HEU) were seized, and three convictions followed.
"They knew the properties of radioactive material, and what it can be used for," said Vitalie Briceag, Chief of the Fraud Investigation Department of the Moldovan police, who was closely involved in the mid-2011 operation. The would-be seller had even offered a "free sample" of plutonium, he added.
Khammar Mrabit, Director of the IAEA's Office of Nuclear Security, said: "The case illustrates the growing lengths to which some criminals are prepared to go in order to trade in nuclear and other radioactive materials, using shielded containers to evade detection systems. It underlines the need for continuous efforts to combat such trafficking. There is no room for complacency."
The IAEA's Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) receives roughly 150-200 reports from Member States each year of radioactive materials that are lost, stolen or otherwise out of regulatory control. Most incidents are minor, but they still mean that the material is potentially available for criminal or malicious acts such as a so-called "dirty bomb".
But the experience of Moldova also shows how a country that takes nuclear security seriously, and works closely with the international community to strengthen its capacity to prevent, detect and respond to such threats, can win concrete results in even a relatively short time.
"Moldova, like any country, can be a transit country for illegal commerce in nuclear material," said Interior Affairs Minister Dorin Recean. "International collaboration is very important because Moldova is not isolated. Whatever happens internationally and regionally we assume as our problem as well. It's a shared problem, and Moldova assumes this shared responsibility."
Since 2009, the IAEA's Office of Nuclear Security has been working with Moldova to raise awareness and understanding of nuclear security issues, advise on planning, train emergency and law enforcement services, and foster collaboration with colleagues in other countries. It has also provided technical equipment, including hand-held radiation detectors used in the 2011 seizure.
One year before that seizure of HEU, Moldovan law enforcement agencies working closely with other countries foiled another plot to sell uranium, at a lower level of enrichment.
The country already has the know-how to run its own training exercises, and now contributes trainers for courses organised by the IAEA elsewhere in the region.
"Every step we take in building our capabilities helps us to identify and manage the risks. All the support we have received from the Agency has built our capacity to implement various policies within the country, to train people, to have the capacity to properly assess risks but also properly understand the technicalities," Minister Recean said.
"So collaboration with the Agency is critical - not only important, but critical."