Russia denies it is source of contraband plutonium

August 16, 1994|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy said yesterday that there was no plutonium 239 missing from its inventory and no evidence that Russia is the source of any of the plutonium smuggled into Germany. But the German government immediately challenged the Russian denial, saying that Bonn had clear evidence of Russian manufacture for some of the highly enriched, weapons-grade contraband.

Germany said that three separate shipments of weapons-grade nuclear material from the former Soviet bloc have been seized within the last four months. Last week, in Munich, German officials arrested three non-Russian couriers on a flight from Moscow with between 100 and 300 grams, or 3.5 to 10.5 ounces, of plutonium 239. Conflicting reports have said that the amount was as little as 7 grams and as much as 500 grams.

But Russian officials continued yesterday to deny that any plutonium 239 is missing, and some are suggesting to Russian news agencies that the West is trying to undermine Russia's commercial position and reputation for reliability.

"The ministry can now officially say we have had no thefts of plutonium 239," Georgi Kaurov, spokesman for the Ministry of Atomic Energy, said at a news conference on Monday. "Very recently, we carried out an inventory of all sources linked to plutonium and we registered no thefts or losses of plutonium 239."

Mr. Kaurov also said: "We have had no contact from German specialists, government or firms, so we have nothing to react to."

But Mr. Kaurov's denial was immediately challenged in Bonn by the German government spokesman, Norbert Schaefer, who told reporters that Germany has already sent Moscow a detailed analysis of a sample of weapons-grade plutonium seized in May.

"The laboratory tests show the material originated in Russia and I'm told that they allow conclusions to be drawn about the laboratory it comes from," Mr. Schaefer said.

But Vladimir Tomarovsky, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Counterintelligence Service, the domestic branch of the former KGB, told the Interfax news agency yesterday that the May seizure of some six grams of plutonium 239 had been traced to Bulgaria, not Russia.

Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, has exchanged letters with the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, on the issue, and is sending his intelligence coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer, to Moscow this week. Mr. Schmidbauer will bring an analysis of the plutonium seized last week.

Russia is not believed to have a single agency that monitors stockpiles of nuclear materials from all sources, with the Atomic Energy Ministry and Defense Ministry keeping their own accounts.

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