Nuclear icebreakers base robbed

Publish date: July 14, 1999

Written by: Igor Kudrik

A group of five apprehended in St. Petersburg while attempting to sell strong radiation emitter stolen from nuclear icebreaker base.

The Russian Security Police apprehended a group of five men in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, July 13, who tried to sell a radioactive source (Californium-252) and more than 17 kilograms of mercury for $50,000. The radiation source originates from the nuclear icebreaker fleet base in Murmansk, Interfax reported. Police say the radiation source could be used for a perfect murder.

One of the persons detained, Nikolay Yefimovich, was a radiation control technician on board the service ship Imandra. The other two were a crew member of the nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya and his son. The identities of the two other arrested persons were not revealed. Media reports mention only that one was a resident of St. Petersburg and the other of Murmansk.

Imandra’s Californium is intact
Californium-252 is a strong emitter of neutron radiation used to start up nuclear reactors. This radioactive source is usually stored on board of the Imandra service ship in containers of 200 kg. To transfer the source onto an icebreaker, a bucket-size container is used which can be carried by one person. After the source is used up, it is transferred to a storage facility on the area of the nuclear icebreaker base Atomflot, situated on the outskirts of Murmansk. The responsibility of the arrested suspects from Imandra was to safeguard the source.

According to Bellona’s source at Murmansk Shipping Company, a private operator of nuclear icebreakers, the active source on board Imandra was last used to start up reactors of the icebreaker Yamal and was transferred back in early July. It is now intact in its container. So the theft most probably occurred from the Atomflot storage facility.

Radiation security systems failed?
No information is available on how the theft could happen. During the past years, the U.S. Department of Energy through its program called Material Protection and Accountability, supplied both Imandra and Atomflot base with physical protection equipment. At the entrance of Atomflot base, radiation detectors were installed. The Interfax report says that the source emitted radiation 350 times higher than background levels, thus it was hard to take through the controls. The reports do not indicate whether the equipment was not functioning, whether there were holes in the fence around, or whether security guards had been bribed.

FSB’s set up?
The ease with which the Russian Security Police, or FSB, performed the arrests arouses a part of scepticism on whether the entire operation was not a set-up. Nikolay Yefimovich, the crew member of the Imandra service ship who was arrested, is, according to his colleagues, a very decent person. He has been working at Imandra for 20 years and had no reprimands at his job. The news reports do not say who were the buyers, nor do they identify all the persons detained during the operation in St. Petersburg. All the details are yet to be clarified, but one can strongly suspect that the operation was a set-up from the FSB in an attempt to show off their great working capabilities in combating theft of radioactive materials.