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Smuggled Plutonium May Not Pose Serious Threat to Safety

By Rick Atkinson
The Washington Post

Two weeks after the seizure by German police of a large quantity of contraband plutonium, investigators in Europe and the United States have concluded that the threat to public safety from smuggled radioactive materials may have been substantially exaggerated by German officials.

Those investigating the contraband plutonium and enriched uranium confiscated in Germany this summer acknowledge that they still have more questions than answers about the origins and intended buyers of the material. Nor do they discount the potentially catastrophic consequences of uncurbed nuclear smuggling.

But interviews with officials in Vienna, Frankfurt, Bonn, Luxembourg and Washington indicate that while the contraband probably came from Russia, there is no firm evidence that it was diverted from nuclear weapons or weapons production lines. Nor is there evidence that bomb-building fissile material has fallen into unauthorized hands. Nor has proof emerged of an organized "Russian mafia" brokering radioactive contraband or of rogue Third World states seeking to buy black-market plutonium.

In fact, some law enforcement officials suspect that at least part of the recent uproar may be a case of the tiger chasing its tail - that aggressive undercover sting operations intended to bait and snare nuclear smugglers have created an artificial demand for radioactive material.

A further complication is that the irresistible combination of crime and nuclear bombs has become a campaign issue in Germany as federal elections draw closer this fall. A leading opposition politician charged this week - without offering any proof - that the government cynically staged several recent arrests of nuclear crooks to bolster Chancellor Helmut Kohl's law-and-order image.

Anti-proliferation experts take pains to stress the gravity of nuclear smuggling, while expressing hope that this month's furor accelerates plans to safeguard nuclear stockpiles. "We don't have a crisis," one U.S. official said. "We have a serious problem."

All agree that the extraordinary purity of one contraband plutonium stash recently seized in Germany was particularly alarming, as was the relatively large size of the plutonium cache found in another bust.

"It is serious, but not very serious," said David Kyd, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) in Vienna. "Serious in that the quality of some samples is exceptionally high, but not very serious in that there's no indication of organized trafficking here... . There doesn't appear to be anybody big time out there in a purchasing mode."

Harald Mueller, a top nonproliferation expert at Frankfurt's Peace Research Institute, added: "My guess is we're still dealing with a trickle and not with a stream. As long as it's only a trickle, we have an opportunity to stem the stream. But that supposes that we do a lot in the next weeks or months."