Plutonium 'leaking' on to black market

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA yesterday dismissed reports of smuggled plutonium as a smear campaign. But independent experts see clear signs of a post- Cold War nightmare - a free- wheeling nuclear bazaar stocked with Russian goods.

'It is happening. The plutonium black market is here,' said Thomas Cochran, an expert in nuclear weapons at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. 'The Russian problem is by far the most serious. People have an incentive to make money. There is clear evidence that stuff is leaking out.'

Officials in Moscow deny a leakage of nuclear materials. But Russia is the only part of the former Soviet Union with nuclear reprocessing facilities, although Ukraine has nuclear warheads on its territory.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Atomic Energy and the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, the successor to the KGB, insist Russia's plutonium and weapons-grade uranium, whether in warheads, storage bunkers or nuclear reactors, is secure. The counter-intelligence service yesterday spoke of disinformation and accused the West of trying to discredit Moscow and undermine its status as a nuclear power.

Unlike Britain and other Western producers of plutonium, Russia does not use an accounting system, known as MUF or Material Unaccounted For, to keep track of its nuclear materials. It relies on the physical security of its plants. Even Western methods allow up to 3 per cent of production to go missing. 'The Russians would not know even if there was anything missing,' said Damon Moglen of Greenpeace, in Paris. 'You have a sea of plutonium. These are just droplets.'

Fears that plutonium or highly enriched uranium suitable for bomb-making might leak on to the market grabbed headlines after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Worries faded as several reported deals turned out to be hoaxes or sting operations.

Today alarm bells are ringing following the seizure in Germany of four batches of nuclear materials - three of plutonium and one of uranium. The quantities, ranging from a fraction of a gram to several hundred grams are too small for a nuclear bomb. But the substances are apparently genuine and are probably from Russia.

It took only 6kg of plutonium- 239 to destroy Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. Modern techniques allow for bomb-

making with only half that amount. Russia's total stock of plutonium is estimated to be about 200 tons, of which 165 tons is in nuclear warheads or military


Dmitri Tomatsky, from Green peace in Moscow, believes the materials found in Germany came from Russia, which produces at least one ton of plutonium each year at three nuclear reprocessing centres in Chelyabinsk, Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. All have been plagued with problems. There was a serious accident at the Tomsk-7 plant last year. Workers have complained of illness at Chelyabinsk.

The West, although terrified of nuclear leakage, helps to fund Russian facilities. The US Department of Energy purchases plutonium-238 from Chelyabinsk, Finland reprocesses used nuclear fuel at Tomsk and other European countries contract particularly 'dirty' nuclear tasks to Russia.

Moscow and Washington reached a preliminary understanding on stopping the production of bomb-making plutonium-239 in March but a final agreement has yet to follow. Both sides are squabbling over finances and access to each other's facilities.

The huge quantities of plutonium in Russia and the small amounts needed to build a bomb make smuggling irresistible. It is highly lucrative for criminals and an easy route to nuclear status for would-be atomic bomb-makers.