Interviews

NIKOLAI KRAVCHENKO

NIKOLAI KRAVCHENKO is the head of the Nuclear Materials Division of the Russian State Customs Committee. Faced with changing borders and a recognition of the scope of the problems associated with nuclear contraband, Mr. Kravchenko is attempting to introduce new procedures and technologies to tighten nuclear customs control.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


KRAVCHENKO: Control over radioactive and nuclear materials at customs points is a new task. Before 1995, this mission of fighting the trafficking of nuclear materials was performed by the border guards who belonged to the KGB. But since 1995, this mission has been transferred, by the government, to customs.

The concept of control included methods of detecting those materials. They produced a list of technical systems, some of them being stationary, some being portable. The Committee also defined two main tasks for the customs officers. The first task is suppression of illegal movement of nuclear and radioactive materials over customs checkpoints. The second is the improvement of control over the legal shipment of those materials.

For one year, the committee worked on several such systems. One of them is a stationary 2-channel monitor of gamma-rays and neutron transmission. It was created by the center for science and production in the city of Dubna, and it was commissioned by the Customs Committee. The system was tested at a Russian federal nuclear center in Cheliabinsk-70, where we were able to completely simulate border check-points, for pedestrians and for automobiles. We tried different quantities of nuclear materials, such as plutonium used in bombs, uranium-235, and we established the minimum quantities that the monitor would be able to detect. We are completely satisfied with the results of the test. In July, they will begin mass production of the monitor for customs.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we inherited certain technology which had been deployed in the 1980's along old Soviet borders by the boarder guards. These are the borders with Finland, China and Iran. And we began to use these, which by the way are rather obsolete, and therefore need to be replaced.

The problem of theft is being solved locally, at the nuclear facilities. On the other hand, in order to stop trafficking, illegal shipment to other countries, we also have to tighten security at the facilities and equip our borders with reliable technology. But let us not forget that Russia is a bridge between Europe and Asia. We are aware of incidents involving illegally obtained radioactive materials being shipped through Russian territory. Therefore, again, the only way to prevent this kind of trafficking is to establish international cooperation that will fully equip Russian borders with monitoring systems.

Because of my contacts with colleagues in foreign customs agencies, I know that legal cargo is being checked at the borders only nominally (as a superficial formality). It means that customs mainly checks licenses and customs declaratons very superficially. There is no real checking of an actual list of materials and their quantity. Other countries' customs as well as Russian.

We have worked out instructions in controlling radioactive materials. This document is approved by the state regulatory agency and the Ministry of Atomic Energy. In the near future, the document is to be approved by the head of the Customs Committee. After that, it will serve as a mandatory guideline for all customs officers in Russia. Finally, solving the problem of control, we should consider all the above-mentioned aspects: technical means, personnel training, guidelines, and productive cooperation between neighboring countries' customs.

Q: And in the 3 or 4 or 5 years until all of this is put in place, what is your biggest worry, your own biggest worry?

KRAVCHENKO: The lack of regular financial support presents the main problem. We have no real scientific or technological difficulties. The scientific potential of state agencies is strong, and from the purely technical point of view, we have no problem detecting radiation. The main problem is financing our activities.

Q: Is it possible to describe the size of your problem, how many kilometers of borders there are in Russia for example?

KRAVCHENKO: As far as the length of the border... Recently, we celebrated Customs Officer Day. It was mentioned in the press that the length of our border is 60 thousand kilometers. This is 1 1/2 times the length of the equator, or even 2 equators, I don't know exactly. This is the scale!!! We have the longest land border in the world.

Q: And right now you don't have the special equipment that you need especially to detect radiation.

KRAVCHENKO: On that part of the border that was left from the USSR and has now become Russian border, we have some control systems. Some of these systems are stationary, some are mobile. These systems control the transit of cargo, people, etc. But I want to emphasize that these systems are old and not always in good shape. We are working on fixing them and are going to substitute them with new ones as soon as we finish supplying our new borders with new types of machinery.

Q: As far as we know, the only incidences of theft of these materials have been conducted by amateurs and people have told me that as if that should be reassuring. I don't find it reassuring, and I'm interested in your opinion.

KRAVCHENKO: I would say that these couriers are not where most of the danger of smuggling nuclear contraband is. Most of the danger lies in not having enough control of the legal export of radioactive materials. Then you have legally shipped radioactive materials. The Customs control systems can detect their radiation. But on paper, it can be written that this radiation is coming from Cesium 137 and not from plutonium. And nobody is thoroughly checking to see what the cargo really consists of. In addition to that contraband, there are specialists, professionals. They do business in this field. In fact, we have a case that took place in Russia last year of smuggling radioactive isotopes in legal cargo. There was twice as much cargo as indicated in the customs declaration. Here we have a criminal case, and an investigation in this matter is going on now. That's all I can say.

Q: If they have the license, then there's no way that the customs inspector can figure out if this license is what is in fact in the cargo?

KRAVCHENKO: It's possible to find out with the use of a Gamma-spectrometer (portable, which we are working on now) without even opening the containers. This instrument can identify simply what is inside : Cesium, Cobalt, Plutonium, or Uranium. For the specialist, it works like finger prints. It's very important for customs officers if you can identify what is in that cargo.

Nobody was working in this area until now. You can do all this in 15 minutes. It is convenient, simple, and after its completion, it will become a device that will help suggest what exactly is in the cargo. If there is a discrepancy between what is said on the paper and what is on the Gamma-spectrometer, the customs official can send the cargo for examination. Then it would be possible to open the cargo that are available, and research its contents by different means using Nuclear physics, and draw up a statement of the case. But Customs has to pay for this service, and if there is nothing wrong with the cargo, then customs must pay the company which sent the shipment. That's why it's important to have a precise instrument in our hands, and we are working on making such a device.

Q: There is a criminal sitting in jail in Prague, and he says that he got on the train in Moscow and traveled to Minsk, Warsaw, and Prague, and was never asked any questions. Is his story possible?

KRAVCHENKO: And when was that?

Q: In 1994, before you took charge.

KRAVCHENKO: Answer: I started to work in '95, my work at customs, so it's difficult for me to comment on that.

Q: And around the same time, you probably know that the man who's been convicted in the Munich case who was found with the material on a Lufthansa flight, that he kicked along the suitcase outside the customs counter while he put his other bags through the X-ray, at Sheremetyevo.

KRAVCHENKO: Have you ever left from Sheremetyevo? Could you sense the atmosphere? Anything could happen. But this is a single case. When it is so crowded, it's hard to keep an eye on such things. But we are arriving at certain conclusions from this experience. We are changing the system of radiation control at Sheremetyevo. We will have it under control. It will work differently than before. So I can answer you only in this way.

Q: Do you sometimes find it difficult to sleep at night, worrying about the seriousness of this problem?

KRAVCHENKO: I don't have time to think about how serious it is. We are just trying to solve this problem little by little.

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