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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Physicist Stored Plutonium in His Garage

A former nuclear physicist voluntarily surrendered several containers containing plutonium in the eastern Siberian town of Zmeinogorsk, but local police are considering charging him with illegal possession of radioactive materials, news agencies reported Tuesday.

Leonid Grigorov, 56, a former employee of a local mining company, turned over 10 containers containing plutonium-238 and cadmium to the police, RIA-Novosti reported, citing the Altai branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry.

Plutonium-238 cannot be used for nuclear weapons because it generates so much heat that the weapon would not be stable, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. However, it can be used to build a so-called dirty bomb, which combines radioactive material with conventional explosives and contaminates an area with the radioactive material upon detonation.

Grigorov, who worked as a nuclear physicist for the Zmeinogorsk mining company until it shut down in 1992, said he found the containers in 1997 in a garbage dump where some mine equipment had been sent instead of being shipped to Radon, the federal radioactive waste enterprise, Strana.ru reported. Plutonium is used to test mined ore.

Grigorov said he took the containers to his garage for safekeeping and wrote several letters to the authorities alerting them of his find, but no one replied.

He decided to hand over the containers after reading in a newspaper that the police were buying weapons from civilians and offering them amnesty.

Police, however, are considering pressing charges, Strana.ru said.

There were conflicting reports on how much plutonium was in the containers and how many containers Grigorov had. The local branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry said there were 10 containers and four contained a mixture of plutonium and cadmium, RIA-Novosti said. The others had cadmium only. Strana.ru, citing local police, said Grigorov surrendered eight containers and each contained 50 grams of plutonium-238. The report, however, erroneously referred to the substance as weapons-grade plutonium.

One milligram of plutonium-238 sells for $8.25 on the legal market, putting the value of Grigorov's find at about $3.3 million, Strana.ru said.

Federal Nuclear Power Service spokesman Nikolai Shingarev declined to comment on the price, noting only that 1 kilogram of the material costs millions of dollars on the international market. He said the containers were probably devices used to test ore. He said such devices usually use plutonium-238 as a source of energy but only "a gram or so is needed for that purpose."

He and Igor Putilov, spokesman for the Altai branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry, stressed that the plutonium-238 could not be used in a nuclear bomb and that it is widely used in mining and other industries.

Authorities regularly detain people on charges of possessing or trying to sell radioactive materials and have taken steps to boost security at nuclear arsenals and civil nuclear facilities.

Some facilities remain poorly guarded, and authorities have abandoned their initial skepticism about the possibility of nuclear terrorism. President Vladimir Putin is now pushing for a United Nations convention on combating nuclear terrorism.

The turmoil after the Soviet collapse offered opportunities for insiders at nuclear facilities to steal nuclear materials, and a few may have some stashed away, said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. But few would be able to sell the materials, he said.

"People who have access are middle-aged, have a very tight and stable circle of acquaintances, and have no knowledge of a foreign language. Any attempt to sell would draw attention," he said.