The Nuclear Mafia

August 29, 1994

Plutonium and highly enriched uranium are being guarded reasonably well in the U.S. But in the former Soviet Union, where the political and economic situation is unstable and organized crime has skyrocketed, the risk of theft or diversion is high. . . [W]orkers at the nuclear storage and research facilities are paid infrequently or not at all. The temptation to accept bribes or to sell weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium is great.

This warning, published two months ago in Chemical and Engineering News magazine, is coming to ominous fruition as an international "nuclear Mafia" tries to peddle the stuff of atomic bombs. Germany has reported four seizures of smuggled nuclear materials since May. It identifies Russia as the source. Moscow denies the allegation but belatedly promises its cooperation in preventing the flow of nuclear materials from its labs, weapons facilities and power plants. It has arrested two men charged with stealing 22 pounds of low-grade uranium from a laboratory.

Each facility that reprocesses uranium into plutonium leaves a distinctive "signature" in its precise mix of elements. Moscow's insistence that all its plutonium is accounted for is patently fraudulent in light of the lawlessness plaguing the country. But Germany, whose bankrolling of Russia's faltering economy gives it leverage, has wisely decided to promote a Bonn-Moscow joint crackdown rather than force the Russians to lose face.

Just as German police were grabbing their first nuclear smugglers last May, FBI director Louis Freeh was citing such illegal arms trafficking as "the greatest long-term threat to the security of the U.S." After he arranged to establish an FBI office in Moscow, The Sun said "it will take monumental cooperation BTC

between American and Russian authorities to keep nuclear materials out of the hands international organized-crime operations." Germany and other nations should be added to the list.

If Russia aspires to be a full partner in the international community, it should not resist efforts to fight a nuclear Mafia that knows no borders and has no scruples. As the superpowers dismantle large portions of their huge nuclear arsenals, this perversely loosens controls on large quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium, some of which could pass into the hands of criminal elements.

This is not just a German, an American or a Russian problem. It is a human problem that affects the security and viability of the planet.

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