No announcement yet.

Nuclear nonsense, black-market bombs and fissile flim-flam

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

    Nuclear nonsense, black-market bombs and fissile flim-flam

    Three undercover Russian journalists breakinto the black market for nuclear materials

    By Kirill Belyaninov

    "There is one more piece, but nobody wants to take it. Too much hassle. We've been sitting on it for six months already," Nikolai said as he swung open the rusted door of an old garage. Tripping over things and swearing under his breath at the electricity that had just gone off, he led us inside. In a corner, covered with old rags and gas canisters, stood what appeared to be a nuclear warhead.

    "SS-20, fully assembled." The middleman pointed at the red-stenciled military markings. "Seventy thousand dollars and you can take it now."

    That was in August 1993. Vladimir, Dmitri, and I-three undercover journalists from Literaturnaya Gazeta and Novaya Ezhednevnaya Gazeta in Moscow-had been investigating the nuclear materials black market for six months already, and we were ready to wrap it up. We took a Polaroid photo of the alleged warhead and told Nikolai we'd double-check its authenticity with our "Moscow sources." Nikolai agreed, under the condition that we have an answer in three days.

    By that point Nikolai was just one of several brokers we had scrupulously cultivated. We spent almost every day calling dealers, waiting, hearing promises, running to the lab to drop off radioactive samples, waiting, picking up samples . . . all while crafting credible lies for the shadowy middlemen. We each knew what would happen if a dealer discovered our true identities.

    In the beginning

    Crossing over to a market economy begins with crossing borders. Budding businessmen from the small but proud and independent Baltic states were the first to understand this. They started the flow of large quantities of scrap metal, timber, oil, and salvage to the West in the last three or four years.

    There was a puzzling element to this tide of goods, however: none of the Baltic republics actually had any raw materials, and the only way to get to the nearest oil well was by plane. The traffickers found a way around this dearth of natural resources. The descendants of Estonians and Lithuanians who had been deported to Siberia after World War II were well-established in Russia's machine-building plants in the Urals. As they returned to Estonia or Lithuania, they brought along materials stolen or purchased from the factories.

    The Latvians took a different tack: they slowly began selling off their republic's property, from copper and bronze monuments to door handles of Roman Catholic cathedrals. The theft of a heavy copper plaque from a Republican parliament building in Riga was the crowning achievement of local dealers. The guards must have been sleeping very soundly that night.

    By 1992, tiny Estonia had become a huge exporter of scrap metal. Its neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, were forced to find new ways of procuring convertible currency, because all their efforts to compete with Estonia had ended in failure. After studying possible markets, the black marketeers found a product: radioactive materials.

    There were a few drawbacks-like potential danger to one's life. But the export of radioactive materials promised colossal profits, and it did not require renting an entire train, as was the case with transporting metals. A container with one kilogram of a substance containing uranium could easily fit into the trunk of any car.

    The initial search for customers in the summer of 1991 was haphazard. Using reference books, dealers looked up small and mid-size Western companies doing business with Russia in almost any field and sent them offers by fax. When a Norwegian firm-having received an offer from Volgograd of red phosphorus, several tons of heavy water, and 10 kilograms of cesium-created a serious scandal, the radioactive materials market went deeply underground.

    The number of criminal proceedings related to the radioactive materials trade can be counted on the fingers of one hand, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency lists more than 20 incidents of fissionable material disappearing from former Soviet nuclear centers from early 1991 to spring 1993.

    Within the past year, material containing uranium 235 was discovered at a customs post in Brest; 250 kilograms of a substance containing commercial-grade uranium were stolen from a refining plant in the town of Glazov, Udmutria; and a kilogram and a half of material that included uranium 238 was stolen from a similar plant in Podolsk. Ten kilograms of polonium were stolen from a federal nuclear research center, Arzamas-16, near Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky).

    While the Western press zealously analyzed rumors of a secret black market for nuclear weapons, and while Western police arrested dozens of middlemen from Eastern European countries caught with samples of uranium and plutonium, the Russian leadership denied the existence of such a market with equal zeal. This denial was especially easy because none of the serious Western investigations into the black market produced any hard evidence.

    "I can declare with complete confidence that we did not register one incident of sale of nuclear weapons," said Andrei Chernenko, the former director of the Public Relations Center of the KGB, in fall 1992. "All the disappearances of radioactive materials from the enterprises of the nuclear complex are purely accidental." Other Russian officials readily supported his statement.

    Plutonium in a cookie box

    The middleman sighed, anxiously scratched behind his ear, and asked, "You know the conditions, don't you?"

    It was May 1993, the middle of our investigation. We had been invited to an apartment building in the center of Moscow around noon, where we met the middleman in a first-floor apartment furnished with only a few desks and an old fax machine.

    The broker reached inside a sturdy bank safe and took out a cardboard cookie box. Inside the box lay a lead sheet rolled into a pipe and pinched at one end. Small, dirty, white flakes slowly fell on the table from the open end as he lifted it out of the box. Two of his recently hired bodyguards-who apparently had not yet learned the scientific nuances of "X-ray salesman" work-quickly jumped back.

    "Don't worry," the middleman said. "We put some laundry detergent in there so that the sample does not accidentally fall out of the container, that's all."

    They brushed aside a pile of documents on a dusty table to make room for the "container." The radiation monitor squealed loudly.

    "It's plutonium 239, just what you ordered," the middleman confirmed. "The conditions are standard: you can take the sample for exactly 24 hours. Tomorrow you will tell us whether you will take the entire shipment or not. Then we can discuss delivery methods."

    As he spoke, he handed me the cookie box-the immediate means of delivery.

    The following day we took the pinched lead pipe in its cookie box to the director of the Moscow Center of Radio Analysis Control, Sergei Belopukhov.

    "Of course there is plutonium here," Belopukhov said. "But the sample also contains plutonium 242, plus cesium, americium, thorium, and some fission fragments. Well, it's your usual reactor utility waste. It's ideal material for terrorists, but you can't make a real bomb out of this."

    Rules of the game

    When Dmitri, Vladimir, and I began this investigation, we didn't have any g*****ose goals. We didn't set out to prove that it's possible to carry absolutely anything out of most factories, either. But this sad truth has been proven time and time again in the past five years when entire trains carrying conventional weapons have vanished from the tracks, only to reappear in one of the Commonwealth of Independent States' "hot spots" a few weeks later. Our task was much easier: we simply tried to verify rumors.

    Our first attempts in February 1993 did not bring any results. We introduced ourselves as businessmen just starting out, and met several dozen brokers at Moscow raw materials exchanges. We talked to every middleman who traded rare earth metals. We studied thousands of applications for export licenses at the Ministry of Foreign Trade. All we managed to learn was that everyone had heard about the nuclear materials market, but no one had ever met a live plutonium salesman.

    Our stunning lack of success was caused in part by a rule we were unaware of: to get into the nuclear materials trade, generally you must be referred to a dealer by two of his colleagues.

    Results finally started coming about two months later, when people in the halls of the trading exchanges began to recognize us as part of the "in" crowd. One of our first offers came from a broker at the Moscow Raw Materials Exchange who offered us 5 kilograms of 80 percent enriched uranium 235. We met him later during rush hour on a busy downtown street. Out of his briefcase he took a laboratory-type container with a sample and an absolutely official-looking certificate of quality from the lab at the State Institute of Rare Earth Metals (GIREMET).

    The Moscow Center of Radio Analysis Control analyzed this sample as well and confirmed the information on the certificate. Then the real difficulties started. Because we couldn't afford to buy the enriched uranium, we said that we would pay for the 2.5-gram sample only after seeing all the "merchandise." When the middleman heard that, he lost interest in the deal and soon vanished altogether.

    A few days later, his colleagues descended on us with offers of "merchandise" samples and GIREMET certificates. They also promised to deliver uranium or plutonium abroad. However, subsequent analysis of their samples at the Moscow Center of Radio Analysis Control showed that there was uranium in only one container-and it was only 23 percent enriched. Other samples from various brokers contained metallic powder, powdered sugar, and a few grams of cesium. One container was empty.

    Trading air

    The flim-flam men are called "ventilators" because they trade air. Trading air as a commercial activity arose in Russia only recently. It quickly became popular in the growing circles of Russian dealers.

    The structure of this business is very simple: a middleman finds a customer who wants to buy several kilograms of, let's say, plutonium. He offers a sample for analysis and receives a deposit. Almost anything can serve as a sample, from a few grams of the real substance-easily procured from numerous institute laboratories-to an empty lead container. A lead container can be X-rayed for a few hours to guarantee a high radiation count.

    All transactions in these circles are conducted in U.S. dollars. After receiving a deposit, the middleman disappears for a week. While the disheartened buyer searches high and low for his broker, waving the empty container and the fake certificate in the air, his money is earning money. It's being used as capital for black market retailers, private lenders, or exploiters of dollar-ruble exchange rates. The profit isn't high; if the middleman receives a deposit of $2,0003,000, he makes $200300 at most. But he suffers absolutely no losses. The middleman finally meets with his client, apologizes profusely for the mistake, and returns the entire sum to his buyer.

    More complicated versions of this trade require a more sophisticated knowledge of banking and criminal law. A year ago, certain Lithuanian and Estonian banks started accepting radioactive material as collateral for credit lines. An empty container is put into the bank safe, and a certificate confirms the serious intentions of its presenter. It isn't that difficult to procure such a document. GIREMET employees make 35,00040,000 rubles a month ($3035). They will write anything on the institute's stationery and put the institute's stamp on it for $100.

    Novice ventilators try to sell the sample to the client as a necessary condition of supplying the entire order of the merchandise. After they receive the money, they vanish. But the black market is tough on those who stray from the rules, and such deals are extremely dangerous. Four Moscow ventilators have died this past year under mysterious circumstances.

    A peaceful atom

    for every home

    In early June 1993, I got a call from one of our contacts. A dealer would be waiting for us at the entrance to the uranium enrichment plant in Elektrostal, near Moscow, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. every day that week.

    Sure enough, when we showed up a few days later, a serious young man in a gym suit and hightops-the standard uniform of Russian racketeers-was indeed waiting.

    "Decide-do you want the merchandise or not?" the man declared.

    There are many factories in Elektrostal, a small, smog-filled town. This particular plant seemed to differ from the others only by the amount of barbed wire around it, a beaten sign announcing "radiation danger," and guards. But a militia battalion, 700 riflemen, and radiation-sensitive alarm systems guarded the entrances and exits. We simply did not believe it was possible to carry anything out of such a fortress.

    "See for yourselves," the young man said, hurt.

    He disappeared through the checkpoint of the plant. Half an hour later he reappeared with a lead box in the pocket of his gym pants. He said the box held three uranium tablets, the kind used as nuclear reactor fuel.

    "Guards will turn off any alarm system for a few minutes for 1,000 rubles," he said. "But if you have to bring out a kilo, it will be much more expensive-and not in rubles. In any case, nobody really counts these tablets." When the young man learned that low-enriched uranium did not interest us, he was disappointed.

    A few months earlier a buyer had come to Elektrostal. During his brief stay, the locals managed to accumulate several kilos of uranium tablets in their basements and attics, according to dealers there. He gathered a kilogram and a half in one week, then disappeared.

    Rumors about the existence of a huge market for nuclear materials have played a cruel joke on the inhabitants of numerous secret cities, such as Arzamas-16 or Chelyabinsk-65, and on employees of facilities such as the Elektrostal plant. Employees of factories producing products ranging from irons to strollers in the former Soviet Union could sell these products on the black market during periods of economic reform. Thus they were able to maintain a modest standard of living.

    Those employed by the nuclear complex, however, didn't have such opportunities. After carrying radioactive materials out of their workplaces, they had to keep them in garages or their own apartments. In the town of Glazov, 15 kilograms of commercial-grade uranium were found underneath the bathtub of a local plant employee. One of the patients in the Obninski Medical Institute of Radiology hospital ended up there because he carried a sample of plutonium in a homemade container in his breast pocket for two months while waiting for a buyer. Two years ago, two employees of a chemical enterprise in Chelyabinsk-65 were arrested with 15 grams of irradiated platinum. They had taken the metal out of the reactor assembly and sold it to a local dentist, who made crowns from it.

    Anything remotely radioactive is subject to trade. If it causes a radiation monitor to click, it's salable.

    More rules

    The purported business of a company trafficking in illegal nuclear materials can be anything from exporting children's toys to delivering Western humanitarian aid into Russia. The main requirement is permission for import-export activities and the capacity to legally take merchandise across the border. A few people in such a business will indeed trade something-like children's toys-making sure there are enough contracts and lists to mask the main source of income in case of an audit.

    It turned out that the young man in the gym suit at the Elektrostal plant was only a test. Four months of trying to find a substantial amount of nuclear material had indeed drawn the attention of a few dealers. One of our primary contacts called and told us when to meet another middleman in his office.

    The sample we received at this first meeting was bogus-it was commercial-grade uranium. The container had less than half a gram of a substance that bore traces of plutonium 240, nothing more, according to tests at the Moscow Center of Radio Analysis Control. We returned the next day for better samples.

    "Well, I don't know what to do," said the assistant director of this unnamed company when we asked for additional samples. Aleksei, who claimed to have worked at a secret nuclear enterprise in Zlatoust-36 for the past 15 years, cradled a lead envelope in his hand. "This plate weighs about 30 grams, and that's a lot of money."

    Eventually Aleksei made a courageous decision. He chased all the employees out of the office; only he, the referring middleman, and we three journalists remained. Hammer and chisel in hand, Aleksei unfolded the lead envelope, took out a metal plate, and within 10 minutes broke off a small piece.

    "Here," he said, bringing the radiation monitor closer. The device went off the scale.

    We agreed on a price: $1,500 for a kilogram. Then Aleksei took half an hour to explain how the merchandise would be delivered across the border. The middleman promised to procure 20 kilograms of plates covered with a layer of plutonium, and to take them to the port of Klaiped in Latvia. He could also deliver the goods to Germany, but it would cost more.

    Aleksei wrapped the chip in plastic, then took a sheet of lead and folded it around the piece, forming a crude envelope.

    We took it to Sergei Belopukhov. "It has plutonium," he confirmed, after analyzing the chip at his center. Belopukhov found peaks indicating plutonium 239, 240, and 242-but very little. The chip was covered with a layer of the substance only several microns thick. A complicated chemical process would be needed to separate the plutonium from the metal, Belopukhov said.

    We had to reject the deal. The middleman agreed to lower the price by five times and promised to cover delivery expenses himself, but we weren't buying.

    We had postponed our entrance into the nuclear club indefinitely. Several "experts" in international terrorism assured us that the Irish Republican Army, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, and especially the Red Brigades would welcome us. The samples we tested, they said, would have been perfect for the creation of a "dirty" bomb, which contaminates the environment as it explodes. If a few grams of plutonium found their way into a water pipe, it would be enough to poison the water supply of half a small city.

    Pickup or delivery?

    The slow return of Soviet troops from Germany beginning in 1991 opened new possibilities for the Russian shadow economy. The crew of a military transport plane will take a load, as long as it is not too big, from a military base near Moscow to the same kind of base near Leipzig for a small sum of money. All the expenses would amount to $500, and no customs checks.

    The land route that our merchandise was supposed to take has been studiously refined for the past three years by traffickers of metals. Metals are purchased in the Urals. Then a small caravan is formed, usually composed of a few trucks and two cars with armed guards. One of the cars usually rides 2 kilometers ahead of the convoy, the better to watch out for racketeers who control the highway. Customs are bypassed rather simply; a standard bribe for a Lithuanian customs guard is $20 for a ton of merchandise, and the load is not examined.

    Even railroads apparently have been used to transport radioactive materials. Several kilograms of merchandise can be spread on the bottom of a flatcar. Then tons of sand, broken brick, and gravel are piled on top. Only a very sensitive radiation monitor would be able to detect anything abnormal, and only three or four Russian customs posts use monitors regularly.

    "Even during completely legal deliveries of Russian nuclear materials to the West, we cannot prevent leakage, no matter how much we want to," said Aleksandr Nechaev, director of the Izotop plant in Moscow, which trades with a dozen foreign countries. "We continue to supply fuel for nuclear reactors that we helped build in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Libya, and other countries. However, we control their transport only up to the border. We simply do not know what happens with this cargo after that point. Considering the poor economic situation in the former Eastern Bloc countries, I wouldn't be surprised if some of it found its way into the black market."

    But wait! There's more

    Ultimately our investigation brought real results. The appearance of buyers interested in strategic materials got around the tight world of Moscow dealers and we started getting one offer after another, ranging from anti-radar shields for planes to a marine-based nuclear missile, the NAP-300. The brokers, whom we met through Nikolai, asked for $5,000 just for the opportunity to see the missile. Unfortunately, we didn't have that kind of money on us at the time.

    Samples appeared from the most unpredictable places. One middleman produced a 5-liter iron vegetable can from the dark cellar of a respectable-looking office. He dropped the can on the floor with a loud thump and suggested that we come closer to measure the radiation level, which penetrated through the thick lead coating.

    Later lab analysis showed that the highly radioactive vegetable can contained some uranium 235 and plutonium isotopes 239, 240, 241, and 242.

    It was impossible to check the quality of the merchandise in most cases. Reliable middlemen usually agreed to give samples for analysis under the condition of "mirroring," the only true protection from ventilators: Both partners give several thousand dollars to a third party as collateral. The seller guarantees the quality of his merchandise. The buyer guarantees that the deal will take place. Any violation of deadlines or of any conditions of the agreement results in the loss of the deposit.

    Legends of the fall

    Our investigation led us to conclude that stories of nuclear materials crossing formerly Soviet borders by the ton are global myths.

    We met 28 dealers. All of them traffic primarily in metals, a trade that has a real and stable market. They deal with radioactive elements only from time to time, when there is the possibility of a really profitable deal.

    Only two of the 28 had succeeded in closing real deals. Of course, we did not take their word for it-we checked with their competitors. In December 1992, 10 kilograms of cesium 137 were sold to a German, and an Arabic-looking man bought half a kilogram of uranium 238 in March 1993. It is considered in bad taste to ask the first or last name of the buyers-or the purpose of the purchase-in these circles, so no further information is available.

    The SS-20 ballistic missile warhead, which may or may not have been authentic, appeared only as we were ready to end our six-month investigation last August.

    "If you take this one," Nikolai said, shoving the white, elongated cone with his foot, "then we will get another one. It's in Ukraine right now."

    The warhead's exterior did check out; but the inside could have been fake, like the insides of warheads that serve as substitutes when the real ones are taken out and serviced. Needless to say, we didn't jump at Nikolai's offer-we could never manage to come up with $70,000.

    At the conclusion of our investigation, we asked one of the top officials of the Atomic Energy Ministry of Russia for an official comment on our findings. He answered all our questions curtly: "We do not have such information."

    For some reason we felt uneasy.

    From The bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

    Guy with the Urdu Custom Title :~P

    Well now that we have the academics forum...heres a good read (atleast I think it is.)

    Sorry for the length