Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

22 Pounds of Uranium Recovered by Russians : Regulation: Material stolen from a closed nuclear center is reportedly not weapons-grade.

August 25, 1994|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russian security officials, adding weight to promises that they would work harder to stop nuclear smuggling, announced Wednesday that they recovered more than 22 pounds of uranium stolen from a closed nuclear center.

The uranium-238 is not weapons-grade and Atomic Energy Ministry spokesman Georgy Kaurov said the material is so harmless it could best be used as a weight for a fishing lure or "to make presses for buckets of sauerkraut."

But in the wake of German accusations that plutonium recently seized in the Munich airport originated in Russia, the uranium case served as concrete reassurance that Moscow would try harder to keep its nuclear stocks under control.

The origin of the Munich plutonium has not definitely been established, but German suspicions that it came from Russia--it arrived on a Lufthansa flight from Moscow--were so strong that Chancellor Helmut Kohl dispatched his intelligence coordinator for three days of talks with Russian security chiefs.

The meetings yielded joint resolutions Monday to fight the nuclear black market harder and with more coordination but no definitive word on where the plutonium came from.

Western governments harbor intense fears that the general disarray and corruption in the former Soviet Union will lead to a swelling supply of black-market nuclear materials that could ultimately be used by terrorists or a hostile dictatorship to hold the world hostage.

It is unclear whether there is a market for purloined uranium and plutonium.

But the latest Russian theft, solved by police in the closed nuclear city called Arzamas-16, demonstrated that the supply of the radioactive materials, or at least the will to provide them, is abundant.

"I think these fools who stole the uranium in Arzamas-16 simply fell for the turmoil in the press," Kaurov said. "They thought they could sell it for millions of dollars and make a fortune out of it. They didn't know what they were doing."

Despite some Western aid, the nuclear industry in Russia remains a hungry one. At the Kurchatov Institute, one of Russia's premier nuclear centers, scientists earn a mere $100 a month and atomic power plant workers have repeatedly threatened to strike because their salaries were delayed for months. Police have noted a tendency by workers to steal almost anything radioactive in the belief that it will find a buyer on the black market.

The kind of press encouragement Kaurov referred to can be found in newspapers like the daily Vechernaya Moskva, which told readers a rise in nuclear thefts was inevitable in coming months because Russia's economy is so bad and the materials are so valuable.

It quoted Sergei Novikov, one of the top officials in Russia's nuclear inspection agency, who told Radio Liberty that, at a factory near the Estonian border, at least 22 nuclear fuel units had been stolen in the course of a year and sold to Estonian factories.

"What do you want, when you can get such materials in Russia for a bottle (of vodka) and sell them in Estonia for a few thousand dollars?" he reportedly asked.

The uranium-238 stolen in Arzamas-16 was found Sunday, the Federal Counterintelligence Service reported Wednesday. It said the uranium was good only for industrial use, not for bomb-building, and would normally cost about $50 a pound if bought officially.

The uranium had been reported missing earlier in Arzamas-16--a high-security center of nuclear science, much like Los Alamos in New Mexico--and police arrested two unemployed men on suspicion of stealing the material.

Meantime, on Wednesday, Pakistan sought to defuse its latest nuclear controversy, caused by a former Pakistani prime minister who claimed his country possesses the atomic bomb.

Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister who now heads the main opposition party, said Tuesday in a speech at Neela Butt, part of the disputed Kashmir territory controlled by Pakistan, that "I confirm that Pakistan possesses the atomic bomb." He insisted that Pakistan did not have the bomb when he served as its leader.

But Foreign Minister Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali on Wednesday repeated Pakistan's longstanding position that it has the components and the know-how to make atomic bombs but has not done so. "I want to say categorically that Pakistan does not have nuclear weapons and does not intend to make nuclear weapons," Ali said in an interview on state television.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|