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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Hunt for Stolen Nuclear Material

Police in Volgograd were still looking Friday for six stolen containers of highly radioactive material that can cause serious harm or even death to anyone coming into close contact with it.

The six containers, containing the radioactive isotope Cesium-137, were stolen from a LUKoil oil refinery in Volgograd on May 7, prompting authorities in the Volgograd region to mobilize hundreds of police and civil defense troopers to help in the search.

Police believe the thieves may intend to smuggle the cesium -- which is not suitable for use in nuclear weapons -- out of Russia for sale.

But the biggest fear is that the thieves have no idea of the danger presented by the cesium and might open up the lead containers.

"The most dangerous possibility is that [they] may not know how many people can be harmed if they throw it out near a house," said Mikhail Kirillin, spokesman for the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, in Moscow.

The cesium is used in electronic equipment that monitors chemical processes inside the oil refinery. Each of the spherical,150-kilogram containers holds a single capsule with about 1 cubic centimeter of cesium-137.

If taken out of its container, the capsule can radiate up to 400 roentgens per hour, according to Pyotr Lazarev at the joint headquarters set up in Volgograd by the police and civil defense troops to track down the stolen material.

A dose of more than 500 roentgens per hour is considered to be lethal, said Georgy Kaurov, spokesman for the Nuclear Power Ministry. A lesser dose can cause burns and long-term health problems, including cancer.

Lazarev said the thieves have not yet been detained, but police had identified a "circle of suspects," possibly employees at the Volgograd oil refinery.

Friday evening, police and civil defense troops were still combing local scrap yards and refuse dumps by car and on foot. There are even plans to use aircraft to try to locate the stolen containers, Lazarev said.

Both Lazarev and Kirillin said the thieves were more likely interested in the isotopes and not the containers. Lazarev said the thieves could well try to sell the isotopes abroad.

In 1994, a group of six men stole similar containers from Volgograd's Khimvolokno chemical facility, with the intention of smuggling the cesium to foreign buyers. They were caught before the containers left Russia.

"Not every country in the world produces cesium, so there is a certain demand [on the black market] for this isotope," Lazarev said.

But the Nuclear Power Ministry's Kaurov said there was absolutely no such demand, as Cesium-137 could not be used in the production of nuclear weapons.

The isotope, which has a half-life of 37 years, is mainly used in metal smelters and refineries, as well as in hospitals for radiation therapy.

Most of these facilities have no devices to detect thefts, and there is no nationwide inventory for Cesium-137, the bulk of which is generated by nuclear power plants as waste.

Kaurov said the lack of an inventory makes it extremely difficult to draw up reliable statistics on the amount of nuclear material that disappears.

The General Prosecutor's Office said there were at least 10 thefts of radioactive material from 1991 to 1994, including one case when about 358.4 grams of Plutonium-239 was intercepted by German security services on a flight from Moscow to Munich.

Germany and the United States have repeatedly expressed concern about poor security and lack of proper stocktaking at Russian nuclear storage facilities.

In a separate case, two containers of cesium, stolen last week from a cobalt smelter in the southern Siberian republic of Tuva, have been found. The cesium capsules were recovered Wednesday on the factory grounds, local civil defense chief Alexander Bykov said Friday.