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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Euroatom Says Smuggled Plutonium Is Russian

Smuggled plutonium seized in Germany definitely came from Russia and may have been heading for Third World states with nuclear ambitions, European scientists and German officials said Thursday.


The only country mentioned officially as a buyer so far is Pakistan.


Reuters reported Berlin police as saying they had raided seven flats Wednesday evening and found evidence that plutonium had either just been sent or was to be sent to the South Asian state, which admits it has the capability to build a bomb.


A Pakistan embassy spokesman in Bonn said: "This has come as a complete surprise to us. We have nothing to do with this," Reuters reported.


As proof of its origin came in, Russia -- which had earlier vehemently denied it was missing any radioactive materials -- announced it had launched an investigation to find the source of the atomic contraband.


At the same time, St. Petersburg police reported yesterday that three men had been caught in Kaliningrad on Aug. 12 just as they were trying to sell a highly radioactive substance for $1 million.


It remains unclear whether the 60-kilogram metal container seized in Kaliningrad last week has high-grade materials that can be used in an atomic bomb, or whether it has a harmful but less lethal lower-level radioactive material.


"The container has not yet been opened," Andrei Sarokhin, head of Kaliningrad region's organized crime division of the police force, said by telephone. "It is in a very safe place awaiting expert analysis."


The closed container guarded by the Baltic Fleet gives off 40 times more radiation than exists normally in nature, according to Igor Komissarov, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg police, which participated in the operation. The dealers of the materials were the head of a local company Baltares and his security guard, as well as an unemployed third man, Komissarov said. The smugglers also carried bullets and radio transmitters.


Euroatom, the atomic energy agency that has been testing the four batches of nuclear materials seized in Germany in as many months, said Thursday that the samples definitely came from Russia.


"There are only three or four places in the former Soviet Union which could have been the place of production," Wilhelm Gmelin, director of Euratom security control, said in Brussels according to Reuters. He named Chelyabinsk, Yekaterinburg and Arzamas, all in Russia.


Gmelin stressed this did not mean the plutonium-239 and enriched uranium had arrived directly from these plants.


These shipments, the first weapons-grade samples to surface in Europe after about 300 hauls of lesser-quality radioactive materials, were seized from middlemen but seemed destined for developing countries eager to build a nuclear bomb, German officials said.


"There are no indications that (the buyers) are terrorists or other people," said Johannes Gerster, a member of the parliamentary control commission that discussed nuclear smuggling with Kohl's aide Bernd Schmidbauer.


"All I can say is that they are states that want to produce atomic weapons," he told ARD television Wednesday evening. "We're talking about crazy sums of money. Private people can't pay that, countries must be behind it."


Reports of nuclear smuggling have become fairly common in the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Germany have arrested a series of nuclear smugglers since 1992.


In June, for example, authorities arrested a butcher, a plumber and a factory worker in St. Petersburg trying to sell $600,000 of enriched uranium which could be used for nuclear reactor fuel.While stating their intentions to cooperate fully during Schmidbauer's visit, Russian Atomic Agency authorities and security officials have repeated their belief that none of the nuclear materials found in Germany originate in Russia.


A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday that appropriate local authorities are launching their own investigation into the origin of the nuclear materials.


Schmidbauer, Kohl's aide on secret service matters, is expected to arrive in Moscow on Saturday for a two-day visit to study the problem, according to Enno Barker, a spokesman for the German Embassy. He is coordinating the trip directly with Sergei Stepashin, head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service, and will be traveling with several nuclear experts, Barker said.


EC interior ministers will also discuss ways of fighting nuclear smuggling with their East European counterparts in Berlin on Sept. 7 and 8, the German Interior Ministry said.


In Washington the State Department said that nuclear smuggling would also be high on the agenda during a summit between President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton in late September.