Collapse leads to nuclear smuggling

Publish date: September 4, 1998

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

The economic collapse in Russia raises the risk of nuclear smuggling to the international black market. A U.S. admiral, quoted by Reuters, warns that many of Russia's nuclear storage facilities no longer have any real protection whatsoever. According to BBC Radio, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also issued a report about the possible increase in attempts to smuggle radioactive materials out of Russia.

This week, a new alarm system aimed at detecting radioactive materials was installed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo-I airport. U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who accompanied President Clinton for the two-day summit in Moscow, said the airport’s new alarm system was part of the international war against terrorism.

"It is a security system that represents another step towards a safer world," he told reporters as he dedicated the equipment, before walking past the machine carrying a black briefcase containing a small sample of radioactive cesium-137. The sample set alarm bells ringing and a red light flashing. All passengers have to pass this alarm system at the customs before leaving Russia on international flights. The U.S. funded the Russian-made system. Russian authorities stated that they would fund similar equipment at Sheremetyevo-2, the main international airport in Moscow with millions of passengers annually. But the recent collapse of Russia’s economy and government throws the plan into doubt.

Salaries or black market cash
Employees in the nuclear industry have been told in recent weeks that their salaries will not be paid on time. For Northwest Russia this includes the employees at the nuclear icebreaker base "Atomflot" in Murmansk and the nuclear submarine shipyards in Severodvinsk. These workers control considerable amounts of radioactive materials. According to a recent IAEA report, there is increasing concern that disgruntled workers at top-secret facilities where Russian nuclear material is produced may be trying to sell some of it on the black market. Late salaries could tempt more of the several thousand unpaid employees to steel radioactive substances and smuggle them abroad for hard currency. The U.S. is mostly concerned about the possibility of weapon-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium finding its way to Iraq or Libya.

In an interview with the Murmansk Daily Polyarnaya Pravda on August 27, Russia’s Deputy minister for atomic energy Nikolay Yegorov says the control and protection of nuclear materials in Russia is constantly being improved.

"Practically all enterprises which handle fissile, and especially nuclear, materials, are equipped with such systems," Yegorov noted. This statement is in strict contradiction to the opinion of Paul Robinson, the man in charge of helping the Russians get their nuclear material under lock and key.

"In many of the facilities there is no real protection whatsoever," he says. According to CBS News, Russia has more than 1,500 tons of nuclear material stored at sites all over the country.