In late September, officers at a border crossing station in Croatia intercepted a vehicle that set off nuclear radiation alarms. Special teams were summoned and the Toyota Camry was searched. Croatian officials discovered radium, a highly radioactive chemical element.
The Polish citizens inside the vehicle handed over numerous bags and boxes containing ampoules of R-266. R-266 is a highly radioactive isomer of radium, an element found in uranium. While some isomers of radium had been approved for both commercial and medical uses, R-266 is the most radioactive form and considered a chemical weapon component.
Initially, the 45-year-old Polish citizen claimed to have found the 10g R-266 jars on a beach in Banica. The woman said she was unaware of the contents and had taken the containers as souvenirs. After conducting a thorough search of the vehicle, however, police discovered a Geiger counter. Her previous defense no longer held up, reporters said. The 45-year-old realized she could not maintain her lie and told police a different story.
She then claimed to need the radioactive element for an alternative form of medical treatment. Nuclear medicine therapy has been a commonplace in the treating and diagnosing of various medical conditions. Radium isomers are rarely, if ever, used in medicine due to the extreme radioactivity produced. R-223 has been approved for medical use by the FDA, but R-226 has proven to be far too dangerous.
R-226 has been documented to be 2.7 million times more radioactive than its molar weight in natural uranium. Exposure has caused innumerable deaths. Given radium’s direct association with uranium and therefore U-235, Croatian law enforcement handled the event with the utmost seriousness.
“The penalty provided for the offense Handling Publicly Dangerous Substances in accordance with Art. 220 of the Criminal Code punishable by imprisonment up to three years,” a source told the media.
Croatia’s Department of Nuclear Safety was brought in as consultation. Their findings confirmed the presence of the R-226, resulting in the isolation and subsequent detention of both passengers.
“First, we do not know yet what it exactly does, but the substance is radioactive,” said Sasa Medakovic, director of the State Office for Radiological and Nuclear Safety. Medakovic has been part of the investigation since the event occurred, dnevnik.hr wrote. “This will be the first recorded case in Croatia of the unauthorized transportation of Ra-226, from which one can produce a ‘dirty bomb’.”
Medakovic said investigators had been searching for the source of the radioactive material.
Further investigation by the police and State Attorney’s Office revealed new details. In collaboration with Polish police, the suspect’s home was searched. Investigators said they discovered the woman, along with her husband, had been purchasing the R-226 from the darknet.
Preliminary evidence revealed that the couple had purchased R-226 from darknet sources in Germany and the Czech Republic. The search of the woman’s home produced data that reinforced the State Attorney’s Office statement; the home contained proof of similar darknet purchases. Many pieces of jewelry contained radioactive substances, investigators said. The suspect had been having the chemicals shipped to various countries where she then smuggled them to outside locations.
Pending further investigation and potential discovery of the darknet vendors supplying the enriched radium, the investigating judge extended the pretrial detention. The defendants will remain in an isolated detention center near the County Court in Dubrovnik for another 30 days.