RUSSIAN officials have angrily denied that the weapons-grade plutonium seized in Germany over the past week originated in Russia, while environmental activists claimed Wednesday that the fissionable material could only have come from a Russian nuclear plant.
Federal Counter-Intelligence Agency spokesman Vladimir Tomarovsky accused the West of launching a campaign to discredit Moscow on Tuesday, the same day that German police announced they had confiscated the second cache of smuggled plutonium 239 in a week.
``Western public opinion is trying to create the belief that Russia, with all its problems, is not in a position to maintain reliable controls on materials of this kind,'' Mr. Tomarovsky said at a news conference. ``So far we can definitely say this is propaganda.''
The latest seizure, the fourth in four months, involved a 34-year-old German charged in Bremen, Germany with illegal possession of two grams of plutonium 239. He reportedly offered undercover police 70 grams of the substance before his arrest Friday.
Last Wednesday, Bavarian police seized three to 10 ounces of plutonium 239 in the luggage of three men - none of whom were Russian - aboard a Lufthansa airliner flying nonstop from Moscow. The International Atomic Energy Agency says between 17 to 22 pounds of the substance is needed to make a crude nuclear bomb.
Confiscation confirms fears
The incidents confirm Western fears that nuclear materials could fall into terrorist hands. They are concerned that developing countries desiring to manufacture their own nuclear devices could gain access to the highly enriched plutonium.
The origin of the seized plutonium has not yet been confirmed. But Western officials widely believe it originated in Russia, and its discovery underlines the mounting problem of former Soviet atomic stockpiles.
Russian nuclear scientists are thought to be easy bribe targets because they receive such low salaries. And a severe lack of funds means security at nuclear facilities is poor.
On Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said Washington would push for Russia to tighten control over its nuclear facilities. Bernd Schmidbauer, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's aide in charge of intelligence affairs, is expected in Moscow soon to discuss the issue.
Campaign to discredit
But Russian Atomic Energy Ministry spokesman Georgy Kaurov said no weapons-grade plutonium or uranium had been reported missing from Russia's nuclear plants. He told the Interfax news agency that accusations against Russia were part of a ``nuclear discrediting'' campaign, and said it was almost impossible to determine the plutonium's origin.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Grigory Karasin, similarly, said the only link between the smugglers on the Lufthansa flight and Russia was their place of departure. And Vladimir Klimenko, security adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, said the Western media and secret services just wanted a pretext to take over Russia's nuclear facilities, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Dmitri Tomatsky, nuclear expert at Greenpeace's Moscow office, says he believes the plutonium came from one of three nuclear plants in Russia's closed cities: Krasnoyarsk-26, Chelyabinsk-65, and Tomsk-7. But some US weapons experts, according to the New York Times, say that the confiscated material is not as pure as the plutonium found in Russian military stocks, but probably came from a civilian source.
Mr. Tomatsky stressed that it was ``impossible'' the plutonium could have originated in other former Soviet republics. ``In Ukraine and Kazakhstan [and Belarus] a different type of nuclear weapons are manufactured, so plutonium could not have come from there,'' he said.
Tomatsky suggested it was no accident that Russian Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Sidorenko was on the same Lufthansa flight as the plutonium. So far, he is not a suspect.
``There are certain channels to smuggle nuclear material out of Russia. People who do this know the industry well, as they probably work in the manufacturing facilities themselves,'' Tomatsky said. ``But it's not possible without the participation of high-ranking officials.''
The German newspaper Die Welt reported that last Wednesday's find was concealed in a metal container inside a suitcase. Russian officials could have been bribed to allow the suitcase to pass undetected through airport security checks, it said.
An official at the Russian State Customs Committee told Interfax that a ``certain amount'' of nuclear material could pass undetected from Russia. But he said customs officials would notice if any significant amount was smuggled.