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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016


AT 11: 30 A. M. ON JULY 1, Viktor Rogachov, co-manager of a Swedish-Russian joint venture, delivered a sealed glass container to the London office of Eurobau Konsortium, a Yorkshire trading company. Rogachov had brought the cylinder from Moscow a few days earlier with certificates stating that the substance was ammonium oxalate, a chemical used to remove rust or manufacture explosives. The certificates were false. The cylinder in fact contained red mercury.

A mysterious Russian-produced substance that appeared on the world market as the Soviet Union collapsed, red mercury has been described as many things. It has been said to be able to provoke a nuclear explosion, electronically guide an ICBM to its target or help African witch doctors divine the future.

The most fantastic of riches to spin out of Russia's bargain basement during the past two years, red mercury has sparked fire storms of controversy within the international scientific community and the multibillion dollar metals trading industry. Red mercury sales have prompted criminal investigations in four countries and caused the arrests of a dozen people accused of transporting this purportedly dangerous material in Europe. Red mercury, which sells for as much as $350, 000 a kilogram, also has been called a red herring.

One of the many organizations trying to discover if Russian red mercury is an atomic hoax or a code word for nuclear material is Axel Johnson Resources, a Swedish raw materials trading company with an annual turnover of $6 billion. Shortly before the failed Soviet coup in August 1991, Axel Johnson entered into an historic joint venture with a giant Russian metals trading firm named Technoexport to market Soviet nickel, cobalt and copper in the West. A key element in the venture, which was named Normaco and headquartered in Axel Johnson's London office, was an agreement that allowed Technoexport to name a co-director whose appointment could not be refused by the Axel Johnson board.

Western intelligence officials have never looked on such agreements with enthusiasm. Most Russians who worked abroad for Soviet trading companies during the Brezhnev and Gorbachev years were senior Communist Party officials who used their positions to double as KGB couriers and gather sensitive information for the agency. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, intelligence analysts say, many of the former state trading company executives linked to the KGB have reemerged to run Russia's refurbished state trading organizations.

Although both Britain and the United States publicly encourage the private sector to enter into business arrangements with Russian companies, intelligence officials say that KGB links and operational parallels between the old Soviet Ministry of Trade and the refurbished Russian trading companies are close enough to argue that history is in the process of repeating itself, particularly in the area of economic espionage.

This is but one avenue currently being explored by British police and a private investigation firm specializing in industrial espionage and retained by Axel Johnson to explain the events that took place in the company's London headquarters on July 1. That morning, Rogachov, a former Technoexport director appointed by the Russians to co-manage the Normaco joint venture, delivered the cylinder containing red mercury to Charles Truman, an electrical engineer with Eurobau Konsortium. Rogachov says that he was unaware the certification he presented to UK Customs and Excise officials was fabricated or that he was carrying red mercury.

Documents pertaining to the Rogachov sample state that the red mercury was the first shipment of a much larger Technoexport consignment negotiated through Eurobau Konsortium managing director Stuart Robertshaw. Technical specifications given to Robertshaw by Rogachov, along with others faxed to him from Moscow to be passed on to Eurobau's clients, included a chemical breakdown for red mercury. Metal specialists say the formulas are nonsense, amounting to either a fraud or the development of a new industrial material that no one in the West has yet found an application for.

Robertshaw maintains the deal was legitimate. He says negotiations first took shape last May when he sent a telex to the Russian Embassy in London. In the telex, he says, he asked for names of C. I. S. firms able to supply Eurobau with a list of strategic metals. He says the list did not include red mercury.

According to Rogachov, a messenger from Invest Ober, a Technoexport subsidiary, delivered the red mercury and falsified export certificates to his Moscow home in late June. Rogachov says he was instructed by Technoexport vice president Vitaly Malchev to deliver the sample to Eurobau prior to a scheduled bulk sale of ammonium oxalate. According to Eurobau's Truman and internal Eurobau documents, Robertshaw collected 2, 500 pounds sterling worth of precious gems from his client in return for the 13. 65 grams of red mercury delivered by Rogachov. The stones were an advance payment to Russian suppliers for Technoexport to supply three more tons of red mercury.

The Rogachov sample, which was chemically analyzed at the laboratories of Ford Smith & Company Ltd. in London, is a mixture of antimony and mercury that meets specifications experts say might be an integral component of an experimental plutonium breeder reactor believed to have been developed some 15 years ago by the former Soviet Ministry of Defense. The breeder reactor would have been capable of producing vast amounts of nuclear-weapons-grade plutonium.

To tranquilize the reaction, say sources in the Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy, project scientists decided to sedate the reactor's core with a never-tried-before powdered blend of antimony and mercury called peredistilirobata retuta, which translates as redistilled mercury or, in shortened form, red mercury.

"We have evidence that strongly indicates a Soviet program to build a new type of breeder reactor with mercury and antimony", said Dr. Giuseppe Sgorbatti, an Italian physicist who has analyzed a sample of red mercury taken during a police raid in Milan last January for use in the first judicial investigation into its traffic.

"The reactors apparently didn't work well, so the government was left with huge stockpiles of red mercury", said Sgorbatti, who has discussed his findings with United Nations inspectors currently surveying Iraq's nuclear capability. "The immediate danger of such a material would be if it had been removed from a working breeder reactor to be sold. An antimony-mercury mixture has a half life of approximately 80 hours".

A half life is the time it takes for a substance to lose its radioactivity.

Sources familiar with the breeder reactor project in Moscow's Kurchatov Institute, an elite nuclear laboratory, believe the project was shut down because the reactor did not work and the government could not afford further experimentation. Over the past year, Russia has closed many nuclear facilities and military bases, and disgruntled soldiers, defrocked Kremlin officials, and Russian organized crime figures have set up ersatz metal trading companies. They sell material, much of it nuclear, salvaged from these military installations and scientific testing sites.

But any viable utilization of red mercury as a coolant depends on the user having access to the techniques needed to construct the experimental breeder reactor. Red mercury is otherwise useless, these sources say, and not worth the asking price, which sales documents indicate have ranged from $25, 000 to $350, 000 a kilogram.

Many of the red mercury offers made to London metal traders stipulate that buyers must inspect, test and pay for the material within three days, well before the material loses its radioactivity. This sale requirement has led some metal traders and intelligence analysts to speculate that at least some of the red mercury being offered has been either mildly irradiated or extracted from a working breeder reactor, so as to mislead buyers into believing the material has a weapons capability.

During a recent interview in Axel Johnson's London office, Rogachov declined to say whether or not he had ever worked for Soviet or Russian intelligence and denied both financial involvement in the transaction and knowledge of an experimental ex-Soviet breeder reactor project.

He said Technoexport vice president Igor Ganin in Moscow had told him the company had sold red mercury to clients in Germany and Canada. Rogachov maintained that red mercury is a "nontoxic, nonradioactive, and nonexplosive material" for use in the "production of semiconductors, electrical and optical devices, radio electronics and medicine, and as a protective coating for metal".

Axel Johnson executives say the red mercury specifications offered by Rogachov constitute a worthless and unfamiliar compound of mercury and antimony with no known industrial or medical use. The mercury content of the Rogachov sample makes it a poison under the world standard for identifying dangerous materials. Red mercury, as well as being a severe environmental hazard, is highly toxic to humans. According to the poison code, the unmonitored transportation of the substance is an environmental threat.

W. Douglass Lee, managing director and chief economist of Intertech Resources, a large London trading firm, describes the scramble to obtain red mercury as a symptom of Russian political and economic schizophrenia and the collapse of the Soviet Union's military.

"If perception is reality", said Lee, one of the strategic metal specialists who appraised the red mercury sample obtained for this article, "then red mercury definitely exists. It appears to be somewhat of a full-service commodity, with a use in everything from African sorcery to nuclear technology. The samples I've seen are powdered mixtures of the metal antimony and mercury. Such material serves absolutely no known industrial purpose, but it's been advertised as a kind of do-it-yourself nuclear holocaust".

"At the same time", Lee adds, "there is no doubt that nuclear and/or radioactive material is being offered by Russians, and that the West has yet to discover all of the technologies the Soviets had been experimenting on during the Cold War. . . . Red mercury - whatever it is - falls somewhere in this dangerous import-export puzzle".

A. Craig Copetas is the former Moscow correspondent for Regardie's magazine and the author of "Bear Hunting with the Politburo".