Russia backs away from denials on plutonium

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AS EUROPEAN scientists traced atomic fingerprints of smuggled plutonium back to Russia, Moscow yesterday backed away from denials and produced its own set of culprits, announcing that police had arrested three nuclear traffickers in the formerly closed military enclave of Kaliningrad.

After the seizure of four separate batches of nuclear material in Germany and alarm over the possible emergence of a 'nuclear mafia', Russian authorities yesterday gave details of their own undercover operation to block the sale of a 60kg container holding unspecified radioactive material.

Igor Kommissarov, a police spokesman in St Petersburg, said a trio of traffickers had been arrested last Friday in Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost territory, between Poland and Lithuania. Police had posed as would-be buyers after the three tried to sell the same material to Poles, Germans and other foreigners. Interfax news agency reported the price tag as dollars 1m ( pounds 660,000).

Russia's decision to publicise the week-old arrests coincided with a statement from the European Union's atomic agency, Euratom, that tests had proved Russia as the original source of at least some of the plutonium smuggled into Germany since May.

Moscow had initially insisted that 'not a gram' of plutonium or highly enriched uranium had leaked on to the market from its nuclear facilities. But Moscow seems to have softened its position after a letter was sent to the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, promising co-operation from President Boris Yeltsin.

Euratom named three possible production sites for materials seized in Germany: the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, nearby Yekaterinburg, formerly Sverdlovsk, and Arzamas, a still-closed research centre where scientists designed the first Soviet bomb, tested in Kazakhstan in 1949.

Euratom announced its findings after preliminary testing at the agency's laboratory in the German city of Karlsruhe. Only two of the four lots appear to contain weapons-grade plutonium - a first batch of unusually pure plutonium-239 found in May and a less pure but far larger 350gm sample seized in Munich after a flight from Moscow. Further tests are needed to identify their exact fingerpints, which scientists can in theory then use to pinpoint precise provenance.

More murky still is the destination. German police raided seven homes in Berlin on Wednesday looking for evidence of what they believe was a plan to smuggle plutonium to Pakistan, which already has the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb but insists it has not done so. Possible customers are Iraq, North Korea and other Third World countries. Plutonium - so toxic that a speck inhaled will cause lung cancer - might also interest terrorists. So far, the prime potential customers appear to be states, said Johannes Gerster, a member of the German parliamentary control commission. 'We're talking about crazy sums of money. Private people can't pay that, countries must be behind it,' he said on German television yesterday.

It takes a lump of plutonium the size of a grapefruit to build a nuclear bomb. The prospect of Russia's stocks - estimated at up to 200 tonnes - dribbling on to the market terrifies Western leaders. President Bill Clinton and Mr Yeltsin will discuss the issue next month in the US. Bernard Schmidbauer, Mr Kohl's security co-ordinator, is expected in Moscow this weekend, while EU interior ministers will discuss the problem with counterparts from Eastern Europe next month.