Plutonium Heist Renews Concerns of Nuclear Catastrophe
BONN — AS Europe struggles to establish a new order, one concern remains constant for many Germans: a nuclear weapons-related catastrophe.
German authorities confirmed over the weekend that three people were arrested in Munich, Germany, for trying to smuggle what could be more than 10 ounces of enriched plutonium 239, a crucial ingredient in nuclear weapons. The Munich batch is the largest amount weapons-grade material ever confiscated by German officials.
During the cold war, then-West Germany was thought to face nuclear annihilation because it straddled the border between East and West and was considered the prime battle ground if circumstances were to heat up between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now, Bonn is concerned that Germany is becoming ground zero for international nuclear smugglers.
``Traveling salesmen with nuclear suitcases pose a new atomic danger,'' Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.
The source of the plutonium is widely believed to be Russia. Tests conducted on nuclear materials from two previous confiscations this summer have shown them to be of Russian origin. According to a report in the Der Spiegel news magazine, which quotes German authorities, the Munich shipment may have been organized by Libyan, Iraqi, or Iranian diplomats.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left large sections of the old elite to fend for themselves. Many of them, particularly older scientists and junior military officers, now live in or near the poverty line, and those with the right access might be tempted to help smugglers obtain nuclear materials.
Saturday marked the second time in the last week that authorities had announced the foiling of a nuclear-smuggling attempt in Germany. Last Thursday, the Bavarian state police said they had confiscated about a quarter of an ounce of enriched uranium 235 in the beginning of July. Six people, also in Munich, were arrested for smuggling. Authorities said the source could be either a Russian atomic power station or a nuclear-powered submarine.
In May, authorities found less than an ounce of plutonium 239 in a raid in the southwestern city of Stuttgart. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced he was sending an envoy to Moscow for talks on the nuclear-smuggling issue. A summit between Mr. Kohl and Russian President Boris Yeltsin is also being planned.
``Every possible step must be taken to prevent such things from happening in the future,'' Kohl told German television.
Foreign Minister Kinkel called on countries of the former Soviet Union - Russia and Ukraine in particular - to tighten controls at nuclear installations, both civilian and military.
In the Munich incident, German authorities made the arrests when the three suspected smugglers - two Spaniards and a Colombian - got off a plane at Munich airport on Wednesday. The Lufthansa flight had originated in Moscow.
Der Spiegel quoted a top Munich law enforcement official as saying the detainees were likely acting as couriers for ``underpaid Russian atomic scientists.''
The exact amount of confiscated plutonium remains unclear. Bavarian police said yesterday they had seized between 3.52 to 10.58 ounces of highly enriched plutonium 239.
``This is a serious danger naturally not only for us, but for many,'' Kohl said of the incident.
FBI Director Louis Freeh, who toured Europe and Russia this summer, said nuclear smuggling is ``the greatest long-term threat to the security of the United States'' in the post-cold-war era.