Germans arrest 2 ex-Soviets selling uranium

March 10, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BERLIN -- German police have arrested two men from the former Soviet Union who were trying to sell 2.6 pounds of slightly enriched uranium, a spokesman said yesterday.

The case was the first confirmed attempt to illegally peddle uranium since the collapse of the Soviet empire heightened fears of leakage of weapons-grade material into the black market.

Moscow told Western officials recently that "scores of warheads" are missing, perhaps because of mere accounting mistakes, the Paris-based International Herald Tribune newspaper reported.

German police said the two men arrested were ethnic Germans, age 36 and 42, who had migrated to Germany under Bonn's policy of granting immediate citizenship to Germans born abroad. Their names were not released.

They had 2.6 pounds of slightly enriched uranium pellets, with only 2.8 percent of isotope 235, the crucial ingredient for atomic weapons, in a lead box and were trying to sell it for $1.1 million, police said.

Police said they did not know the origins of the uranium or how it was smuggled into Germany. The identity of the prospective buyers is known, they added, but they declined to give further details.

Authorities in the Commonwealth of Independent States, which succeeded the Soviet Union, have strongly denied previous reports of Soviet enriched uranium being offered for sale abroad.

Western officials have grown concerned as the Soviet Union's collapse weakened central control over nuclear weapons, especially tactical weapons such as artillery shells.

The inheritors of the Soviet arsenal have insisted that all nuclear weapons once deployed around the empire have been withdrawn and secured in the new republics of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

But the massive disorder uncovered since the collapse of communism has fueled doubts about the accuracy of Soviet record-keeping, even in areas as sensitive as nuclear production.

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