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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Smuggling Arrests Exposed as Stings

The man arrested as he delivered a plutonium sample to an undercover police agent at the Bremen train station in the north of Germany was an undercover agent himself -- for another police bureau, his lawyer revealed Friday.


Police denied the alleged smuggler was working for them at the time of his arrest, but acknowledged the would-be buyer was their agent.


In fact, of the 276 nuclear-smuggling crimes recorded in Germany since 1992, almost all have been sting operations, including two of the three other finds of weapons-grade material this summer, police and researchers said.


The new light cast on the methods used to trap nuclear smugglers in Germany came as a nuclear official in Russia, the alleged source of the stolen radioactive materials, admitted that thefts do occur from Russia's civilian nuclear facilities.


Four samples of deadly plutonium and highly enriched uranium have been seized in Germany in the last four months, highlighting international concern about a secret trade in nuclear-bomb making materials.


But by saturating the market with fake buyers, some officials believe German police may have tricked open a Pandora's box of deadly nuclear radiation by offering big bucks to Russian scientists and criminals willing to smuggle out the material.


"There's no evidence of a real market for plutonium in Germany," said Hans-Georg von Bock und Pollah, the chief prosecutor in Bremen. "There's a danger that our interest in pursuing criminals is bringing danger into Germany. As law enforcers, we simply can't do that."


Others, including Bavarian police chief G--nter Beckstein, say the Germans only accelerated a process of leakage that would have occurred anyway -- and not under police auspices.


In the largest smuggling case so far, a suitcase with 300 to 350 grams of plutonium in a powder compound was confiscated from an alleged smuggler as he arrived at Munich airport Aug. 10 on a flight from Moscow.


Bernd Schmidbauer, the government's intelligence coordinator, who heads to Russia on Saturday for talks, said the various sting operations had exposed security leaks in Russian nuclear installations, forcing Moscow to admit to the problem and work with Western authorities to solve it.


He also said that German police did not let their Russian counterparts know that the Munich arrest was a sting operation because they feared Russian officials were implicated.


They did not inform them, he said, "because certain offices in Moscow could have been involved, and then the arrest wouldn't have been possible ... This isn't an accusation but rather the point that must be discussed in Moscow -- working together."


When the first low-grade radioactive material began leaking out of the former Soviet bloc in 1991, German police created nuclear smuggling divisions and sent dozens of agents into the field.


The standard way of catching a smuggler was to pose as a buyer. Thinking they had buyers in Germany, smugglers began offering their wares there.Journalists, too, began posing as buyers.


"I think it's clear that journalists and police have accelerated the leakage from Russian installations," said Annette Schaper of the Peace and Conflict Resolution Foundation in Frankfurt. "When you go around asking for weapons-grade material, you give ideas to people who never thought about it before."


Meanwhile an official from Russia's nuclear watchdog admitted Friday that the theft of radioactive materials was not unusual in Russia. Dozens of cases of theft from civilian nuclear facilities have been reported over the past year alone.


"It is a fairly common occurrence. We have discovered many cases of theft of radioactive materials since we came into existence," Sergei Novikov, the deputy head of the northwestern section of Gosatomnadzor, told Reuters.


But the Russian Nuclear Power Ministry, responsible for top- secret military nuclear facilities, said new checks carried out on the orders of President Boris Yeltsin showed that no weapons-grade nuclear material was missing.


"We can say quite clearly that nothing is missing and nothing has been lost," spokesman Georgy Kaurov said.


"We have completed investigations at all places holding plutonium and uranium 235," he said. "We really have nothing missing."


Novikov denied speculation that the smuggling of nuclear material was being controlled by organized criminal gangs.


"Organized criminal groups have not been linked to any of the thefts," he said.


(AP, Reuters)