WHEN it comes to nuclear smuggling, German authorities say the hypothetical has become reality. Now the challenge is to prevent the situation from mushrooming into a nightmare.
The recent disclosures of four foiled nuclear smuggling attempts in Germany set off alarm bells, not only in Bonn, but in other Western capitals. The source of the nuclear materials, German officials insist, is the former Soviet Union, which has been beset by political and economic turmoil since its disintegration in December 1991.
``The situation regarding the smuggling of nuclear materials is extremely serious,'' says Gunther Beckstein, interior minister in the southern state of Bavaria.
Bavarian authorities have been involved in two of the four German sting operations in which nuclear materials were seized, including the Aug. 10 Munich airport incident in which police arrested three men for trying to smuggle about 10.5 ounces of plutonium 239, the largest snatch recorded by German authorites. Such successes, however, only heighten concern among Bavarian authorities.
``We only seize a small part of such materials that are spreading around the world: It's the tip of the iceberg,'' Mr. Beckstein said.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was expected to press Russian President Boris Yeltsin to help combat nuclear smuggling during a meeting in Berlin Aug. 31. German law-enforcement officials, including Beckstein, say Russia holds the key to dealing with the new nuclear threat.
The dangers posed by nuclear trafficking are multifaceted. An outlaw nation or terrorist group could acquire enough weapons-grade nuclear material - either plutonium or uranium - to make an atomic bomb. But smaller amounts can also wreak havoc. It takes only a tiny quantity of plutonium, for example, to poison a large city's water supply. ``A big danger is that such materials could be used for blackmail,'' Beckstein said.
After some initial footdragging, Mr. Yeltsin's administration has signaled its desire to cooperate with Western nations in trying to thwart the smuggling of radioactive materials. Preliminary talks with German authorities on antismuggling cooperation - held in Moscow on Aug. 20 - were labeled ``constructive'' by Russian intelligence officials.
But securing the support of the top Russian leadership does not ensure that Moscow will be able to effectively combat nuclear smuggling, German officials add. ``I have no doubt that the top leaders in the [Russian] government are concerned by this problem,'' Beckstein said, referring to the nuclear threat. ``But I am not sure if all people in the [Russian] security apparatus share that concern.''
Indeed, Bernd Schmidbauer, Mr. Kohl's top intelligence adviser, raised the possibility during an interview with German television that Russian intelligence officers may either have been directly involved in, or withheld knowledge of, the Munich airport smuggling attempt.
The immediate focus should be on improving security at Russian nuclear military and civilian installations, German officials say. Economic chaos in the nuclear powers of the former Soviet Union - Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine - has lowered security at nuclear facilities while heightening temptation for those with access to radioactive material to peddle it to the highest bidder.
Russian officials have reacted angrily to international criticism about lax security standards. Moscow has repeatedly claimed it retains proper control over all nuclear materials produced on Russian territory.
The Germans, however, would clearly feel more comfortable if security at Russian facilities were enforced by international agencies.
``There is a danger posed by the Russian mafia,'' Beckstein explained. ``Elements from the old Communist Party and KGB are joining with the new capitalists of organized crime in Russia. That can add a whole new dimension to the problem.''
Meanwhile in Germany, accusations of political trickery and bureaucratic overzealousness have accompanied efforts to combat nuclear smuggling.
One leading official of the opposition Social Democratic Party charged Aug. 25 that Kohl's government staged recent nuclear smuggling seizures to boost its chances in Germany's upcoming Oct. 16 parliamentary elections. No concrete evidence was offered to back the allegation.
Kohl and other top Christian Democrat leaders vehemently denied the accusation, and Social Democrat leader Rudolf Scharping subsequently declined to repeat the charge against his political opponents.
Some observers also suggest that the German sting operations are having the unintended effect of creating a market for nuclear materials where none existed before. But such suggestions are summarily dismissed by Beckstein and others.
``If you have a mousetrap, that's not the reason you have mice,'' Beckstein said.