Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Plutonium Threat







A Herr Jaeckle has just been arrested in Germany in possession of enough grams of plutonium to build a nuclear detonator. The plutonium -- which is generally assumed to have come from Russia -- was found in a lead jar in his garage.


Herr Jaeckle, I have to say -- and you must forgive me for being cynical -- arrives in the news just in the nick of time. For without him the great smuggling-of-nuclear-materials-from-Russia story might have died a silent death; and a lot of Western reporters, law-enforcement agents, television-makers and espionage bosses might have had to face the prospect of future unemployment. Herr Jaeckle has now put an end to that unhappy scenario.


For not only has he been found in actual possession of the hot goods in question, but he has also let on to the police that there is another 150 kilos of the stuff running loose around Germany -- enough to make two pukka, industrial-strength nuclear bombs. The result? Deep sighs of relief all round; budgets are set to soar once more.


Now I am not saying that there has not been wholesale theft in Russia of nuclear materials from institutes, plants, dumps and wherever else the stuff is stored. I have actually seen film of some bone-headed middleman hacking bits off a nuclear warhead that Russian journalist friends of mine were trying to buy. And there are enough stories on police dockets, God knows, of technicians arrested on the Moscow streets with suitcases stuffed with enriched uranium; and of other jug-heads crossing European borders with caesium burning holes in their jacket pockets -- and themselves.


My point is that the amount of nuclear materials actually found in Western European countries is vanishingly small. A few grams in Switzerland; a few more in Italy; some in France; a bit in Germany -- let's be generous and say it's about 5 kilos in all. But that is not enough to get you anywhere near first base in the bomb-making business, even if it is all the copper-bottomed, plutonium real McCoy. The only way you can make the whole thing sit up and beg as a story is if every single bit of the stuff is proved to be a sample for a larger consignment. And the problem here is that these "larger consignments" are actually alarmingly thin on the ground. The only two I have ever been able to come up with were a consignment of uranium that was supposed to have been sent from Tbilisi to London via Estonia and Sweden; and a whole mess of plutonium discovered -- along with "a diving expert with connections to the British Secret Service" -- in a town in northern Germany. Both consignments (and stories) simply disappeared into thin air on any closer inspection.


And then, of course, there is the Red Mercury Palaver -- as Pooh Bear might have called it. Red mercury, if you have been asleep for the past three or four years, is a (usually radioactive) amalgam of mercury and antimony which is said to have some awesome properties. I have seen a Western television program which said that if you paint it on an aircraft, the aircraft will become invisible to radar; and I have heard a Western scientist announce that you can use it to make a nuclear bomb the size of a tennis ball. I have even heard Russians who should know the truth of the matter announce that it is a deeply secret Russian invention that scares them half to death.


The only problem is that it is almost certainly "a deeply secret Russian invention" that doesn't do much of anything. Its very "secretness" has allowed Russian hoods to sell it in Europe at enormous prices, and at the same time to use its radioactivity to mask what they are really smuggling: gold, platinum, diamonds and whatever else they have in mind.


In any case, even if we accept for a moment that red mercury is the real business, and even if we accept too that the small amounts of nuclear materials found are really tasters for buyers of larger consignments, what are they doing in Western Europe in the first place? I mean, the place for this stuff to go from Russia is clearly south and east, not west at all. There the borders are either porous or non-existent, and there are regimes which are really after what Russian smugglers have to offer.


In all this, then, I cannot help believing that Herr Jaeckle is a bit of a red herring -- even though there will no doubt be grave public statements by Western police forces about him, and even graver private statements about the need for a rise in budgets to meet the great threat he represents. But what I want to know, now that the FBI have opened an office in Moscow to deal with this kind of thing, is why they have not opened offices in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan as well?