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Ex-Soviets' 'Loose Nukes' Sparking Security Alarms

December 28, 1992|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — For 48 hours, the two Russians and their Belarussian accomplice holed up in the dreary border town of Brest, waiting for two contacts from Poland to show up. To kill time and the autumn chill, the trio opened a bottle of vodka and began a round-the-clock drinking party.

When the Poles arrived in the city of 238,000 in western Belarus, the Russians produced the lead capsule they had stolen from a top-secret installation 1,200 miles to the east. The Poles examined it. Police, tipped in advance, then swooped down on the apartment to block the sale of illegal contraband--5 1/2 pounds of uranium.

"We caught them in the middle of the transaction," Vasily S. Kapitan, chief of investigations in the Belarus state prosecutor's office, said proudly.

The contraband--uranium oxide, a dark powder commonly formed into aspirin-sized pellets to fuel Soviet-made civilian power reactors--was meant to be smuggled into Poland for resale. Belarussian experts found that the material was not potent enough for use in a nuclear weapon.

But the Brest deal was just one incident in the saga of a defunct superpower that, because of economic hardships and collapsing authority, is well on the way to becoming a genuine atomic bazaar.

In the jargon of international security, the problem is broadly known as "loose nukes." Raw and processed uranium, the technology to transmute fissionable material for military ends and the knowledge that created the Soviet nuclear arsenal--they are all now for sale or often subject to safeguards that many find dangerously flimsy.

Russia's economic bust means some top-grade scientists are now paid as little as $12 a month. Little wonder, then, that some try to do better: Security Minister Viktor P. Barannikov disclosed this month that 64 experts on building nuclear-capable ICBMs were stopped before they could illegally fly to North Korea.

Russian officials, including Alexander F. Mokhov, head of internal security at the Atomic Energy Ministry, deny that a nuclear "brain drain" is occurring.

But according to Security Ministry sources, some scientists nabbed as they awaited a flight at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-2 airport had worked at the capital's I. V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy and key facilities in Russia's nuclear-weapons establishment, Arzamas 16 and Tomsk 7.

The scale and diversity of the proliferation problems triggered by the Soviet breakup are so immense they will inevitably be a major concern of the incoming Clinton Administration. To cut the risks, Congress, prodded by Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), has allotted $800 million to help destroy Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons stocks and bar their proliferation.

But a series of interviews with Russian nuclear experts, and the uncovering of facts known previously only to a small circle of specialists here, indicates that the potential for a significant leak is still great.

Take, for example, the Mayak Chemical Works near Chelyabinsk, where used fuel rods from nuclear power reactors are chopped up and doused with concentrated nitric acid to extract plutonium, the element used for the primary charge in thermonuclear bombs.

In 1992, 120 metric tons of fuel were reprocessed. At a symposium this month, Mayak chief engineer Yevgeny G. Dzekun admitted that due to uncertainties in factory calculations, up to 33 pounds of extracted plutonium--enough to make at least one crude fission weapon--could vanish every three months from the plant without managers being the wiser.

"For now, the embezzlement of uranium and plutonium from our installation is out of the question," Dzekun asserted. "But if the situation continues the way it is, who knows what a person without conscience might do? Today, everybody wants to earn more money."

The potential for mayhem seems as large as the Soviet Union was. In the Arctic port of Murmansk, a single carload of police escorts fresh uranium fuel as it is lugged by specially designed vehicle from a rail depot to the naval base. In Ukraine, proliferation problems have come from the military itself: four servicemen were detained after containers of radioactive strontium-90 were stolen from a former Soviet army base this fall.

After visiting seven countries of the former Soviet Union last month to assess nuclear security problems, Nunn and Lugar returned to the United States voicing concern.

"Strategic nuclear weapons are now situated in four new countries (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus), and each . . . faces severe internal strains," they said. "There is also the growing risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear technology and materials, and nuclear know-how."

But there is a rival school of thought that contends the proliferation dangers of the Soviet meltdown are intentionally overstated.

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