Japanese gangster charged with trafficking nuclear materials

February 26, 2024, 12:12PMNuclear News

U.S. officials have brought charges of nuclear materials trafficking against a Japanese gangster who has been in federal custody since 2022.

In a case filled with international espionage, along with alleged weapons and drug trafficking, Takeshi Ebisawa has been charged with attempting to sell uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. The 60-year-old Japanese national—who is believed to be a leading figure in the Yakuza, the Japanese organized crime syndicate—faces a long list of federal charges that carry sentence of life in prison.

Quotable: “It’s impossible to overstate the seriousness of the conduct alleged in [the] indictment,” said Damian Williams, U.S. attorney of the Southern District of New York. “As alleged, Takeshi Ebisawa brazenly trafficked material containing uranium and weapons-grade plutonium from Burma and other countries . . . while believing that the material was going to be used in the development of a nuclear weapons program.”

“Even as he allegedly attempted to sell nuclear materials, Ebisawa also negotiated for the purchase of deadly weapons, including surface-to-air-missiles.”

A photo provided by Ebisawa to undercover DEA agents in his negotiations to sell nuclear materials. (Image: U.S. Department of Justice)

During a meeting in Southeast Asia, an undercover DEA agent photographed these “nuclear samples,” which were provided by Ebisawa’s coconspirators. (Image: U.S. Department of Justice)

The nuclear salesman: According to court records unsealed this month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tricked Ebisawa into believing he was selling his shipment of nuclear materials to Iran to help with its weapons program.

Beginning in early 2020, Ebisawa sent a series of communications about a large quantity of nuclear materials he had access to and wished to sell. He also sent photographs showing dark, rocky material with a Geiger counter. Ebisawa said he planned to get the material from Burma (also known as Myanmar), an Asian country that has been engaged in civil war for decades.

An undercover DEA agent agreed to help broker a potential sale to someone pretending to be an Iranian general, but who was in fact a second DEA confidential source. In a message on September 5, 2020, one of the DEA agents sent a message to the Ebisawa, asking, “How enriched is it? Above 5 percent? They don’t need it for energy, Iranian government need [sic] it for nuclear weapons.”

Ebisawa replied, “I think so and I hope so.”

Over time, the agents agreed to a deal, and Ebisawa sent a letter in the name of a mining company for the sale of 50 metric tons of uranium and thorium for a price of $6.85 million. On a call with one of the undercover agents, Ebisawa conceded he did not have a license to deal the materials, so the sale would need to be a very “quiet and secret illegal transaction.”

He was also looking to buy a cache of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, AK-47s, M60 machine guns, snipers, and much more, as detailed in this order list from Ebisawa.

Behind the scenes: In parallel with an arms deal, the DEA agents continued discussions with Ebisawa about the nuclear materials purchase into 2021. That June, Ebisawa circulated a note stating the material for sale was 80 percent purity for U3O8—triuranium octixide—a concentrate of uranium known as yellowcake.

The agents in communication with Ebisawa repeatedly confirmed with him that they were purportedly looking for enriched uranium for the Iranian government’s nuclear weapons program.

In February 2022, the defendant met with the undercover agents in Thailand to discuss the sale and provided samples of nuclear materials. The parties discussed the “weapons-for-nuclear materials” deal.

With the assistance of Thai authorities, the nuclear samples were seized and transferred to the custody of U.S. law enforcement. A nuclear forensic laboratory determined that both samples contained detectable quantities of uranium, thorium, and plutonium – in particular, the isotope composition of the plutonium was found to be weapons-grade, meaning if produced in sufficient quantities it could be used in a nuclear weapon.

Court charges: Ebisawa and a codefendant, Somphop Singhasiri, were charged in April 2022 with international narcotics trafficking and firearm offenses. The nuclear trafficking charges have now superseded those charges.

“The defendant stands accused of conspiring to sell weapons-grade nuclear material and lethal narcotics from Burma and to purchase military weaponry on behalf of an armed insurgent group. It is chilling to imagine the consequences had these efforts succeeded,” said Matthew G. Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security.

DEA administrator Anne Milgram said, “As alleged, the defendants in this case trafficked in drugs, weapons, and nuclear material—going so far as to offer uranium and weapons-grade plutonium fully expecting that Iran would use it for nuclear weapons. This is an extraordinary example of the depravity of drug traffickers who operate with total disregard for human life. I commend the men and women of DEA and this prosecution team for their tireless work to protect us from such evil.”

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