Former Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Adamov arrested in Switzerland at US request

Publish date: May 4, 2005

Written by: Charles Digges

Swiss authorities have arrested Russia's former Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov after a US court accused him of defrauding America to the tune $9m in funding intended to improve safety at Russian nuclear facilities, according to Swiss authorities.

Adamov—who gained notoriety in the Russian environmental community for ramming a 2001 legislative package allowing the import of radioactive waste to Russia for reprocessing— was arrested in Bern on Monday during a visit to Switzerland, Folco Galli, spokesman for the Swiss justice ministry, told Bellona Web.

The US Justice Department requested the arrest based on a warrant issued by the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Galli said, confirming a report on the arrest published in Wednesday’s New York Times.

Prosecutors accuse Adamov, 65, of diverting the money into bank accounts in Delaware and Pennsylvania, according to his chief lawyer, Lanny Breuer of Washington, who called the charges “baseless.” Mr. Adamov is being charged by the United States attorney’s office in Pittsburgh because he is part owner of a consulting firm there, Mr. Breuer told the New York Times.

The warrant from Pittsburgh accuses Adamov of diverting up to $9 million that the US Department of Energy (DOE) provided Russia and investing the money in various projects, including US firms that he controls.

“That Adamov was a businessman, and a rather shady one, has long been public knowledge. And this was shown by the data of the Duma committee, which investigated his activities in 2001 while he was still holding the post of Minister,” of Atomic Energy, said Alexander Nikitin, head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg office.

“Obviously, big money was practically out of control—let the Americans investigate it if the Russian side is unable.”

In 2002, Adamov lost a libel suit lodged against him by Nikitin for alleging Nikitin was a spy during a 1998 interview on Ekho Moskvi radio during the Russian security services’ prosecution of Nikitin for his contribution to Bellona’s report on the the Russian Northern nuclear fleet.

“With all responsibility, I can say that more than 70 percent of the information gathered by Nikitin for the Bellona organisation has nothing to do with ecology,” Adamov said in his May 8th 1998 interview.

The court found in Nikitin’s favour and ordered Adamov to pay 10,000 roubles in moral damages—which he still has not paid—and mandated that all news organisations that had reprinted Adamov’s accusations had to print retractions. Nikitin was entirely acquitted of the espionage charges filled against him by Russia’s supreme court in September 2000.

In Adamov’s defence, Breuer said that Adamov had supervised the clean up of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Before becoming Russia’s atomic energy chief, Adamov headed a Moscow institute that developed the RBMK-1000 Chernobyl-style reactor, a type widely considered by Western specialists to be outmoded and dangerous.

Despite the Chernobyl accident, and the wide consensus of nuclear experts, Adamov remained a strong supporter of the RBMK-1000 graphite moderated reactors used there, and he became atomic energy minister under President Boris Yeltsin in 1998. In December 2000, he criticised the government of Ukraine for closing the Chernobyl plant and insisted it was safe.

Yeltsin’s successor, President Vladimir Putin, ousted Adamov early in 2001 in a shake-up of his year-old government. The ouster coincided with an investigation by an anticorruption unit of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, in which Adamov was accused of benefiting from business dealings while serving as minister.

Swiss justice ministry spokesman Galli gave no details about why Adamov was in Bern, but the New York Times said he was in Switzerland for negotiations on several bank accounts belonging to his daughter that had been frozen.

Russian officialdom distances itself from Adamov

Adamov, who maintains a vague but powerful advisory roll with the Ministry of Atomic Energy’s new incarnation, the Federal Agency for Atomic Energy (Rosatom), was hastily shunned by his former colleges on Rosatom’s official web site,

“Pretences have been brought against Adamov concerning a number of contracts that were introduced on a commercial level between the Scientific Research and Construction Institute of Energy Technology [NIKIET in it’s Russian abbreviation] and a number of organisations in the United States at the beginning of the 1990s in the field of atomic energy security,” read the statement.

“These pretences are not associated with Adamov’s activities during his tenure with the ministry.”

Russia’s foreign ministry, according to Russian news outlets, said its consular officials in Bern were trying to gain access to Adamov and to ascertain the charges levied against him.

”As far as we are aware, Adamov is facing charges in connection with his commercial activities in the early 1990s prior to his appointment as Russian atomic energy minister,” Alexander Yakovenko, spokesman for the ministry, told the Interfax new agency.

Radwaste imports and a corruption investigation

Adamov came under increasing fire in connection with corruption allegations against him and his proposal to import nuclear waste to Russia for reprocessing early in 2001. Adamov insisted the accusations were in retaliation for his refusal to be corrupted. “Many times I was offered million-dollar bribes,” he said in a 2002 interview with The Moscow Times, an English-language daily. “But I always refused.”

But after the radioactive waste import proposal was adopted as law in 2001 by the Duma, many Duma members admitted in interviews with Bellona Web and The Moscow Times that they had taken favours and outright bribes from Adamov’s powerful lobby to vote for the legislation package.

At the same time, the United States government was investigating the relationship between Adamov’s Pittsburgh-based consulting firm and a company that buys down-blended weapons-grade uranium taken from old Russian warheads, and sells it to American nuclear power plants.

The Iranian bone of contention

While in office, Adamov also angered US authorities when he shrugged off their objections that Russia’s assistance to Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program could also help that country build a nuclear weapon. Rosatom is still battling these charges, and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iranian dissident group have revealed Iran could well be on its way to producing nuclear weapons, though no connection has been established between Russia’s civilian nuclear efforts and Tehran’s apparent weapons ambitions.

Front companies alleged by Duma’s anti-corruption committee

In 2001, the Duma’s accused Adamov of illegally setting up companies inside and outside Russia, including a consulting firm called Omeka registered in Monroeville, Penssylvania. Since leaving the minister’s post, Adamov had officially joined NIKIET and worked on projects to improve safety at Russia’s 11 RBMK-1000 reactors still in operation.

Swiss authorities, said Galli, are asking Adamov whether he is willing to accept simplified extradition to the United States. If he rejects that, Washington will have to file a formal extradition request. Switzerland can detain Adamov for up to 40 days, after which it must file a request to extend the detention another 20 days.