Russian uranium thieves arrested

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The Independent Online
IN A joint operation by police and the successor agency to the KGB, two unemployed Russians have been arrested with nearly 10kg of low-grade uranium pilfered from Arzamas-16, the formerly secret city where the Soviet Union built its first atom bomb and Andrei Sakharov helped design its hydrogen weapon.

The same nuclear facility, built in 1946 on Stalin's orders on the wooded grounds of a destroyed monastery south of Nizhny-Novgorod, has been pinpointed by European investigators as the most likely origin of a small batch of 'super-grade' plutonium uncovered in a German garage in May.

When Andrei Sakharov worked at Arzamas, it was known as the Installation and hermetically sealed from the outside world. Post to its scientists would be addressed to Moscow Centre 300. Some of the secrecy remains but its privileges have vanished.

Staff threatened to go on strike last December and wrote to President Boris Yeltsin complaining of unpaid salaries, along with colleagues at Russia's other main laboratory for the design and assembly of nuclear warheads, Chelyabinsk-70.

But the theft announced yesterday by the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service and one traced back to Arzamas from the garage of a German travelling salesman seem unconnected. Nor did either involve weapons-grade material. Russian officials dismiss worries over lax security in the nuclear network, which officially employs more than 100,000 people.

'Some find it's profitable to present Russian nuclear plants as defenceless,' Yuri Yakiliyev, deputy director of Arzamas-16, told Itar-Tass news agency. Russian officials have repeatedly complained of a smear campaign, orchestrated variously by Russia's competitors in the nuclear power industry or foreign states trying to undermine the last guarantor of Moscow's great-power status.

The find announced yesterday involved 9.5kg of uranium-238, which could be used to help fuel a nuclear power station but not a bomb. No details were given of the two men arrested, other than that they were without work and had been picked up last Saturday. The Counter-Intelligence Service, the Ministry of Interior and police in Arzamas, began an investigation that led to the arrests after 5kg of uranium was reported missing.

It is the second time in a week that Russia has announced arrests involving what they say is non-weapons grade nuclear material. The earlier case was in the western enclave of Kaliningrad.