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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Smuggling on Yeltsin-Kohl Agenda

President Boris Yeltsin is ready to discuss the problem of nuclear smuggling with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl when he visits Berlin next week, his office said Tuesday.

The statement came as German officials praised Russia for showing increased interest in tackling the problem that has resulted in four German arrests for selling nuclear fuel over the past four months.

"Contrary to the impression we had when differences were aired publicly in Russia, the Russian side now clearly wants to cooperate," Chancellery minister Friedrich Bohl told German radio.

Yet even after a weekend meeting between top secret service officials of the two countries, Yeltsin's office and Russian experts said Tuesday that they were puzzled why a country with tight borders like Germany appears to have become the crossroads of nuclear smuggling.

"It's a very interesting question and I would like an answer to why this is all taking place in Germany," said Anatoly Krasikov, spokesman for the Russian president. He added that the nuclear smuggling issue may be discussed when Yeltsin meets Kohl in Berlin to celebrate the departure of the last occupation Russian soldier from Germany next week.

Some observers believe Germany has stimulated demand by setting up a network of sting operations in which police undercover agents offer large sums of money for weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. The lawyer for one alleged plutonium smuggler last week said his client was also a police agent, which would mean police completed both the purchase and sale of the transaction.

"They have provoked, stimulated the sale," Vladislav Kotlov, head of the Nuclear Power Ministry's nuclear reactor section, said in an interview. "If there were no buyers, there would be no sellers."

Nikolai Ponomaryov-Stepnoi, vice president of Russia's leading atomic energy complex, the Kurchatovsky Institute, said it was "strange" that Germany had been the magnet for not only nuclear smuggling but also for red mercury, which two years ago was touted as a powerful radioactive substance but is now recognized to be a hoax.

While voicing suspicions about Germany's police operations, Ponomaryov-Stepnoi at the same time called for a strengthening of security procedures at Russia's nuclear installations.

"We believe that the system of monitoring and registering nuclear materials must be improved," he told a press conference.

The existing system "worked well in the days when there was iron discipline," he said. Now "we understand that a black market has emerged although no one has traced it to its end point."

German officials on Tuesday again suggested that the end destination for recently smuggled materials may have been Pakistan.

"The Berlin public prosecutor has evidence that indicates plutonium was sold to Pakistan or supposed to be sold," Justice Ministry spokesman Frank Thiel told Reuters. "This is still the object of our investigation -- plutonium for Pakistan."

If Pakistan may have been the endpoint, German experts and Euratom, which has tested some of the nuclear samples seized by German police, believe Russia was the source of at least some of the recently seized nuclear materials.

Russian officials have steadfastly denied they have lax security controls over their closed nuclear facilities, but over the weekend pledged to Germany to strengthen border controls and take other measures to prevent smuggling of fuel which could be used in an atomic bomb.

"Our security service is in touch with the German security service to exchange information," said Krasikov of the president's office. "This is good because everyone -- Russians, Germany, the United States, and other countries -- are interested that there not be such trade."

According to a Russian-German memorandum drafted when Bernd Schmidbauer, Kohl's aide on secret service matters, visited Moscow last weekend, this cooperation does not extend to testing the nuclear materials in Russia. The document, contrary to the wishes of many Russian atomic experts who wanted to examine the material in Russia, says that nuclear materials will be tested in the country in which they are discovered -- which for now means Germany.