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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Only Yeltsin Can Settle Nuclear Mess

As it turns out, this sleepy week in August was an unfortunate time for Boris Yeltsin to be away on the Volga river. Only the president, it seems, can unravel the knots into which his ministers in Moscow have tied themselves due to the current international furor over plutonium smuggling.

By now German police have caught four groups smuggling weapons-grade plutonium and uranium through their country. The European nuclear agency has confirmed that the largest haul came from one of three plants in Russia. But in Moscow, confusion reigns as to whether to cry foul and deny any possible Russian involvement, or to start tracking down the leak.

The Foreign Ministry, predictably, has taken the more conciliatory stand, announcing Thursday that an investigation has begun to hunt down the source for the illicit plutonium sales. But the organizations that should conduct that investigation -- namely the Federal Counterintelligence Service and the Nuclear Power Ministry -- remain on an entirely different wavelength.

Given the march of events by Thursday, that attitude defies all logic. Police in Berlin tracked down a smuggling ring there and made a tentative identification of Pakistan as the final buyer of a recently captured sample of some 300 grams of plutonium. At the same time, police in Kaliningrad were arresting a man with 60 kilograms of nuclear materials -- a timely reminder that theft of civilian nuclear materials has long been commonplace here.

Yet nuclear officials again insisted that security at Russia's nuclear facilities is as good as anywhere in the world and that it is virtually impossible for any plutonium to have got away. One can only recall that in 1986, when Chernobyl melted down, the Soviet government kept quiet for days, allowing tens of thousands of people to contaminate themselves during May Day parades.

Whether or not Russia ultimately proves to be the world's loose nuclear link, an unequivocal statement is needed from Yeltsin to get his ministries in line and help wipe out the plutonium trade.

A great deal is at stake. Not only is there a risk that terrorists or pariah states could buy the bomb, but equally worrying is the fact the possible effect on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Soon up for renegotiation, the treaty is designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons beyond a small number of -- we hope -- stable and responsible states. But if plutonium can be bought on the open market, what price a treaty? Why should North Korea, for example, struggle to produce plutonium secretly if it can buy it in some German back-alley from a man with good Russian connections?