NUCLEAR TRAFFICKINGJapanese Yakuza Leader Charged with Trafficking Nuclear Materials

Published 23 February 2024

Takeshi Ebisawa of Japan, leader within the Yakuza transnational organized crime syndicate, was charged with trafficking nuclear materials, including uranium and weapons-grade plutonium.

Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York; Matthew G. Olsen, the Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s National Security Division; and Anne Milgram, the Administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), on Wednesday, 21 February, announced the issuance today of a Superseding Indictment charging Takeshi Ebisawa with conspiring with a network of associates to traffic nuclear materials from Burma to other countries.

In the course of this conspiracy, Ebisawa and his confederates showed samples of nuclear materials in Thailand to a DEA undercover agent (“UC-1”), who was posing as a narcotics and weapons trafficker.  With the assistance of Thai authorities, the nuclear samples were seized and subsequently transferred to the custody of U.S. law enforcement.  A U.S. nuclear forensic laboratory later analyzed the samples and confirmed that the samples contain uranium and weapons-grade plutonium.    

Ebisawa and co-defendant Somphop Singhasiri were previously charged in April 2022 with international narcotics trafficking and firearms offenses, and both have been ordered detained.  Ebisawa and Singhasiri were arraigned on the Superseding Indictment before U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon on Thursday, 22 February.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said: “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, and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who traffic in these materials and threaten U.S. national security and international stability.”

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.”

According to the allegations contained in the Superseding Indictment, which was unsealed in Manhattan federal court:

Beginning in early 2020, Ebisawa informed UC-1 and a DEA confidential source (“CS-1”) that Ebisawa had access to a large quantity of nuclear materials that he wanted to sell.  Later that year, Ebisawa sent UC-1 a series of photographs depicting rocky substances with Geiger counters measuring radiation, as well as pages of what Ebisawa represented to be lab analyses indicating the presence of thorium and uranium in the depicted substances. 

In response to Ebisawa’s repeated inquiries, UC-1 agreed, as part of the DEA’s investigation, to help Ebisawa broker the sale of his nuclear materials to UC-1’s associate, who was posing as an Iranian general (the “General”), for use in a nuclear weapons program.  Ebisawa then offered to supply the General with “plutonium” that would be even “better” and more “powerful” than uranium for this purpose. 

During their discussions regarding Ebisawa’s access to nuclear materials, Ebisawa also engaged with UC-1 concerning Ebisawa’s desire to purchase military-grade weapons.  To that end, in May 2021, Ebisawa sent UC-1 a list of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, that Ebisawa wished to purchase from UC-1 on behalf of the leader of an ethnic insurgent group in Burma (“CC-1”).  Together with two other co-conspirators (“CC-2” and “CC-3”), Ebisawa proposed to UC-1 that CC-1 sell uranium to the General, through Ebisawa, to fund CC-1’s weapons purchase. 

On a February 4, 2022 videoconference, CC-2 told UC-1 that CC-1 had available more than 2,000 kilograms of Thorium-232 and more than 100 kilograms of uranium in the compound U3O8 — referring to a compound of uranium commonly found in the uranium concentrate powder known as “yellowcake” — and that CC-1 could produce as much as five tons of nuclear materials in Burma.  CC-2 also advised that CC-1 had provided samples of the uranium and thorium, which CC-2 was prepared to show to UC-1’s purported buyers.  CC-2 noted that the samples should be packed “to contain . . . the radiation.” 

About one week later, Ebisawa, CC-2, and CC-3 participated in a series of meetings with UC-1 and CS-1 in Southeast Asia, to discuss their ongoing weapons, narcotics, and nuclear materials transactions.  During one of these meetings, CC-2 asked UC-1 to meet in CC-2’s hotel room.  Inside the room, CC-2 showed UC-1 two plastic containers each holding a powdery yellow substance (the “Nuclear Samples”), which CC-2 described as “yellowcake.”  CC-2 advised that one container held a sample of uranium in the compound U3O8, and the other container held Thorium-232.  UC-1 photographed and video-recorded the nuclear samples.

The minimum and maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress, but any sentencing of the defendants will be determined by Judge McMahon.