Five Men on Trial in Minsk for Allegedly Selling Chernobyl Uranium

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The facts of the case — which first emerged in vivid detail in the government controlled Minsk newspaper Sovietskaya Belorussia — remain difficult to verify independently. One opposition journalists in Minsk, who requested anonymity, characterized Sovietskaya Belorussia as "the daily journal of official lies" in a telephone interview with Bellona Web Wednesday.

But the events outlined by the newspaper — which spin the narrative of a former Chernobyl employee and four cohorts attempting to sell the uranium in Minsk and being foiled by a daring operation conducted an undercover Belorussian KGB agent, "who played his role wonderfully" — were confirmed in general terms by Belorussian Embassy officials in Moscow and a spokesman for the KGB prosecutor’s office in Minsk, all of whom declined to be named.

"Yes a trial is underway for five suspects and yes we are certain that the uranium came from the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in Ukraine," said the KGB spokesman in a telephone interview from Minsk with Bellona Web on Wednesday.

Experts with the Bellona Foundation indicated that the amount of 2 percent LEU seized in the apparent sting — 1.5 kilograms— is not enough to make a true weapon of mass destruction. For that, according to Bellona, some 5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium would be required — and for that, any potential buyers who meant to make a nuclear bomb out of the stolen uranium would need a nuclear reactor to enrich the LEU for that purpose.

The LEU could also have been rigged to conventional explosives — a so-called "dirty bomb — which could have caused mass panic, but would have presented small health risks. There is, so far, no word on what the intended use of the LEU was, the KGB spokesman said.

The trial of the alleged smugglers, which began on September 30th names five men — one Ukrainian and five Belorussians — and implicates them in a plot supposedly hatched earlier this year to sell the 1.5 kilograms of Chernobyl pedigree uranium dioxide earlier this year, the KGB spokesman said.

The alleged smugglers, who were identified by the newspaper and the KGB prosecutors’ office only by their surnames, are named as Veselovsky, of Ukraine, and four Belorussians, Kurdesov, Bankalyuk, Volchenko and Gurinovich. The KGB spokesman, however, noted there must have been a rift among the conspirators: During interrogation Kurdesov and Veselovsky allegedly said they planned to sell the five fuel rods for $250,000. Volchenko apparently said he planned to sell the rods for $800,000.

According to the KGB spokesman and Sovietskaya Belorussia, the serial numbers on zirconium tubes — where the uranium dioxide pellets are stored in RBMK-1000 reactor fuel assemblies — had been removed. These numbers would have established without doubt that the rods came from Chernobyl. Other tests, however — that neither the KGB spokesman nor the newspaper described — had determined that the uranium came from Chernobyl.

Indeed, the ties that investigators have established between the uranium and Chernobyl are circumstantial, and centre on Veselovsky, who according to the spokesman, had worked at the Chernobyl plant. In 1987, according to the spokesman and the paper’s version of events, Veselovsky was appointed as a foreman in Chernobyl’s reactor shop, where radioactive elements are processed. A spokesman for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant confirmed Veselovsky’s employment there to Bellona Web. Veselovsky had also worked at a nuclear power plant in Russia prior to Chernobyl, but the paper did not indicate which, and the KGB prosecutor’s spokesman declined to say.

The case for Veselovsky’s involvement in the apparent heist hinges on a theft of 7.6 kilograms of 2 percent (LEU) that was stolen from Chernobyl in 1993.

According to Lyudmila Zaitseva, who operates one of the world’s most comprehensive databases at Standford University’s Institute for International Studies that documents stolen or missing nuclear material, the 1993 theft was never solved. But during the Ukrainian investigation, the KGB spokesman said, Veselovsky was questioned as a witness.

Zaitseva said — as did the spokesman — that the alleged 1.5 kilograms of LEU Veselovsky and his four alleged accomplices are charged with attempting to sell may be a part of that same 1993 theft.

The KBG spokesman added that another factor tying the uranium dioxide to Chernobyl was a stamp in Veselovsky’s passport from early this year showing that he had crossed the Ukrainian-Belorussian border into Belorussia at Novaya Yolcha. The checkpoint, according to Sovietskya Belorussia, services short-distance electric trains that run between Chernigov, Ukraine and Yolocha, Belorussia.

"This, until now, has not been an especially strong border checkpoint — it resembles the simple pedestrian crossing point between Russia and Estonia" said the KGB spokesman. "So we think Veselovsky chose this point to cross because he knew he wouldn’t be checked for the fuel rods he was allegedly carrying."

This would indicate that Veselovsky waited several years before allegedly searching for potential buyers. Soveitskaya Belorussia conjectured that this was because he wanted noise from the theft to die down, said the KGB spokesman.

But the case becomes more clouded when the role of Belorussian national Kurdesov is taken into consideration. He spent several years living in Ukraine, but the KGB spokesman said he had no history of working in the nuclear sector. Both Veselovsky and Kurdesov deny the charges against them and further accuse each other of being in the one who obtained the uranium, according to the KGB spokesman and the newspaper.

The KGB spokesmen would not confirm the remaining twists of the case in specific terms, but said Sovietskaya Belorussia’s account of ensuing events was "accurate to the best of my knowledge."

Citing investigators, the paper reported that Kurdesov moved back to Belorussia in 2001, slightly before his co-defendant Veselovsky, and settled in the town of Mogiliev. Upon arrival Kurdesov allegedly hinted to his acquaintance — and now co-defendant — Bankalyuk that he was looking for a customer to whom to sell uranium. Bankalyuk was at the time employed at the Minsk Ball-Bearing factory.

Bankalyuk allegedly agreed to assist Kurdesov in this endeavour and, the paper reported, and soon put him in contact with Gurinovich who then apparently put the pair in touch with Volchenko, the paper said.

The KGB eventually got wind of the alleged scheme in December — typically, neither Sovietskaya Belorussia nor the KGB spokesman would say how — and decided to place an informant posing as a potential client in the smuggler’s midst as a possible buyer for the uranium.

Volchenko, the paper reported, verified the undercover agent/s underworld connections, found them satisfactory and agreed to strike a deal: The agent would by one fuel rod for $10,000 to test the quality of the uranium, the paper said. If that passed muster, the agent would buy the rest for a price the paper did not name.

At that prompting, Kurdesov allegedly began a relay to get a uranium rod to the "client," passing it first to Gurinovich, who passed it to Volchenko and arranged the meeting. After agents had the rod in their possession, the paper reported, tests revealed that it was genuine uranium and they made arrangements to by the further lot, which ended in the arrests of the suspects and the return of the uranium.

Other Minsk-based journalists interviewed were highly sceptical of the source of so detailed an account — namely the KGB. Nonetheless, several conceded it probably has basis in fact simply because it advances no obvious political point. As one put it "if Sovietskaya Belorussia wanted it to look like the security services had made a strike against world terrorism, they would be trying these men for trying to sell plutonium."

Standford’s Zaitseva was also willing to grant the report some veracity, as it made reference to the 1992 theft from Chernobyl and other typical patterns surrounding nuclear theft.

"Unfortunately, follow-up articles on illicit trafficking incidents’ investigations and trials are rare, but they provide a wealth of important information, such as the description of the culprits, their intent and modus operandi, site and border control vulnerabilities, origin of the material and its possible destination," she wrote in an email interview from Palo Alto, California.

"What this case has shown again is that insiders — people who work at nuclear facilities and have access to nuclear material — are most likely to commit a theft because they know the vulnerabilities of security systems and can smuggle the material out undetected"

Another common and truthful thread she found in the article was the ineptness of the thieves themselves, who neither know what they have, what its value is, nor whom to sell it to.

"This case has also confirmed that most ‘nuclear smugglers’ have little knowledge about the material they deal with, on the one hand, and unrealistically high expectations about its value on the other," Zaitseva wrote.

"Most of them do not know exactly who would be interested in buying, and end up selling the stuff from one criminal group to another for a profit."

Charles Digges