Interviews

YURI SMIRNOV

LEONID SMIRNOV is the first known thief of bomb grade nuclear materials in Russia. He worked as an engineer at the Luch plant in Podolsk, an industrial town south of Moscow, and worked in a laboratory that handled highly enriched uranium.

Over a period from May to September, 1992, while his co-workers were taking smoking breaks, Smirnov skimmed off and pocketed 50-70 grams of uranium. Lab procedures allowed for a certain percentage of "irretrievable loss" because of the technical process and there were no detectors at the doors, so his theft went undetected. Eventually, he amassed a total of roughly 1.5 kilograms of HEU, stored in a jar on his balcony.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: So you say it was not a heroic deed. Why is that?

SMIRNOV: I meant my own act for which I became famous, the crime for which I became known. So, I'm saying it is something I want to forget. But it is a good lesson others might benefit from.

Q: Do you think that you should have been sentenced to more time in prison? Would that have been a better lesson for other people?

SMIRNOV: Of course. I didn't think they'd give me three years probation. I thought I'd have to actually serve the sentence, three years or even more. But the judge found it possible to leave me free because I was not dangerous to society. Circumstances simply worked out that way. The situation in this country was not very clear and in my head it wasn't clear--economics and all that. It's all such a mess. So that's how it happened. I had worked 46 years and lived an honest life like everyone else.

Q: Explain to me why you think you did it, after all these years as an honest man.

SMIRNOV: As you can see, I don't enjoy a rich, because my father and mother weren't rich, no uncle, aunt, no inheritance and nothing of what you'd call capital. I lived from paycheck to paycheck. But it was stable. I could plan and project my future purchases, could somehow calculate half a year or a year in advance, live like a normal person and know what was ahead. Then came the reform of 1992, when money lost its value. I didn't have anything saved in the bank anyway, but prices began to rise much faster than salaries. Literally every week, every month, the gap grew and grew and became huge.

I don't have expensive tastes, you know, but I was at a loss. I could buy nothing--no furniture, no clothing, nothing. So, I simply panicked. Of course, if I would have continued living like this, life would have settled into a new course. Things started gradually readjusting. Other people managed to adjust to these conditions--some went into trade, some into business. I had nothing -- all I had was home and the factory--factory and home. No friends with connections. No contacts in the trade business. And then, as luck would have it, I came across an article in Komsomol'skaya Pravda. I don't remember the title now. There were several people who stole uranium. It was not written what level of enrichment it was, ninety percent or not. But I remember the weight--1200 grams. That I remember exactly. I read it and it interested me. Before, such articles were not published. I simply thought, "imagine that!" I stored it in my memory, that's all.

That was when I got this idea: to also siphon off uranium little by little, especially since we had a highly enriched uranium, up to ninety percent enriched uranium 235.

So this idea formed--but how to sell it...to whom, and how. I had no idea. It was only later, when I thought back to what I had done, I realized that for me it was simply a psychological exit from this economic stress. I had found a solution and already it was easier for me to live and breathe and somehow I could see a ray of light ahead because I would have this back-up. It was just a kind of defense against that stress.

To put my plan into action was not too difficult since I myself worked with the material. I weighed it myself and accounted for it myself. I knew when I could take some and how much I could take so that no one would notice. They keep track of every gram. But a process is a process: there are always spills, overflows, losses. So there's always a percentage of unplanned...so-called "irretrievable losses" -- around three percent. But if you're very neat and gather everything, then it was possible to siphon off around one percent a month for yourself. The rest nobody notices because everything goes into the special sewerage system, purification, and on to storage, then the purified water goes somewhere. Our purification is done very well.

So that's how I began. I'd take a fifty gram vial -- the kind we used to take samples to the laboratory. So when no one was looking during a smoke break or just when no one was there, I would measure off a little from the box into a vial, shake it off (still in the box), wrap it up, then take it out of the box and place it on a clean rag in gloves and wipe the vial with a special chemical solution. I would check the Geiger counter--how it crackled, how strong it crackled. But we only had a Geiger counter for Beta particles. If it didn't crackle, I would roll it up in clean paper and hide it in my pocket. Later, I'd throw it in my bag. That was it and I'd take it out of the plant.

There were no detection devices either at the entrance, the exit, or at the checkpoint. The only counters you had were to check your hands in the locker rooms, but it was your own responsibility to check your hands. That's the way I would get it out. Then I would bring it home and put it on the balcony. I had a little jar there and I would pour the stuff into - very carefully so that the dust wouldn't be blown away - very carefully poured it in and covered it up. I would take the same vial and paper and everything, put it in a clean plastic bag, tie it up, and pack it. Then I would take it back to the factory the next day and throw it in with the waste to be burned up.

And that's how I did it. For three and a half months, I would take one or two vials at a time when it was possible. I knew when I could do it. A vial would hold approximately sixty grams--sometimes two vials, sometimes one. I didn't weigh it at home. I had no scale and I wouldn't do it, so as to not contaminate, but just roughly. Later the investigation found I'd ended up with 1,538 grams.

Q: And did you ever have any close calls?

SMIRNOV: No. There really weren't any.

Q: Why not?

SMIRNOV: Because who would suspect me? Such an idea never occurred to any of our workers. Who would have thought of it? It was completely unexpected for everyone. The vial was so small and no one searched our bags. No detectors. So, no such thing. If someone had suspected me, they would have told me and I would have understood that it couldn't continue anymore because someone had figured it out. Or even worse, someone could have informed the authorities and I would have been caught red-handed. But no one knew: not one person--no relatives, no close friends, not a soul.

Q:Why did you stop?

SMIRNOV: I stopped only because I'd reached a certain volume. The article wrote about 1200 grams. And I--well, like them, like me. I looked at how much I had in my little jars and decided it was enough. But it turned out that I had accumulated 300 grams more than I'd wanted. And then, I was just sick of it. Not that the situation had improved, but a psychological barrier... I couldn't keep it at home anymore. I was sick of the whole thing. My nerves were going to pieces. As it turned out, I had gone a bit too far, took a little too much: I just wanted to rest my soul.

Q: And then what was your plan to begin to try and sell it?

SMIRNOV: I was going to get on the train and ride to Kursky Station.. There's a baggage locker there. I don't remember how much it cost. It used to be 15 kopecks, then... I don't remember. And you can leace it there for three or five days and you don't have to worry about it because it is locked. And then you can come back and pay for a few more days and change the combination and keep it as long as needed, for a year if you wanted to. At least that's what I thought.

When I was accumulating the material I didn't think of how I would sell it. What was there to worry about? After all, I had such hot stuff - I'd have no trouble selling it. The important thing was to get it. And I thought I would just wander around Moscow. There are all sorts of firms and offices there. I would just look at the names, many foreign and Russian firms. I would just hint about the stuff I had. If anyone believed me, then we could talk. I'd left a bit at home in a little jar as a sample in case I found a buyer, so they could check it, analyze it, to see if it was the real thing, not a fake.

That was my plan-to walk around, look for a buyer. If someone was serious, I would later somehow think about security. There was nothing specific yet, but if somebody there said I was crazy - OK, fine - I'd simply move on. That was the plan. I didn't have anything beyond that. I thought the maximum I'd make was five hundred dollars. That was my salary for two years. I needed a new refrigerator, and a new gas stove. The old fridge had already been there for 40 years, and a 30-year-old gas stove that had never been changed. And my apartment needed to be renovated. That's all. I didn't need to make a big profit. I just needed to live through that time when I wanted to buy something but couldn't because of inflation. My salary couldn't keep up with it, and I could never buy anything. I needed to buy a few essentials and then work honestly.

It was Friday when they arrested me. After the night shift, I was coming home from work. The shift ended at 6 and I didn't really want to sleep. The work was intense, but not physically. You don't get too tired, because you work with your head, not your hands. At home I took a travel bag on wheels and put the three metal containers into it and enclosed them in sheets of lead so that nothing would leak out, so there was no radiation emission. I put everything into a plastic bag and then into the travel bag. I took the bag and went to the station. There was a break in the schedule between 1 and 2.

There were many people at the station waiting for the train. Unfortunately for me, I met some friends... I mean neighbors, we lived in the same town. I went up and said hello. They were drunk, also waiting for the train. And just as the train arrived at the paltform several policeman out of nowhere, and they stopped all four of us.

It turned out the police had something on my neighbors. They had stolen a few storage batteries from the factory where they worked and someone had informed on them, but I was with them and that was how I got arrested. We were taken to the police station; they searched my containers. After an hour, we were taken to the main police station. Again, we were split up and taken to different rooms.

Q: Did they understand yet what this material was?

SMIRNOV: No one in the police knew what it was. Simply, the police are the police: they have to search the suspect, look through his bag. But what could I say? Their attention was immediately drawn to my lead containers. You could see the lead was all sealed. I figured that even if I lied, they would still open it and spill the stuff. I would get another charge-contaminating the region. So, I told them right away that I had uranium in there.

Q: But so when you said the word uranium, they all scattered?

SMIRNOV: They all went in different directions, but the room was small. They couldn't go far. It was so unexpected. People are simply scared of the very word "uranium".

Q: Before the reforms that you mentioned when we first started talking, had you ever thought about stealing this kind of material from the plant?

SMIRNOV: I never thought of such a thing. Such nonsense never occurred to anyone. It was not a candy factory where you could steal a kilo of candy. It was not a bakery. Nobody thought of it because it's not gold, not platinum--no product that could be sold immediately. Of course not. If not for the messed-up economy I would never have done this. And I never took anything from the plant, not a single bolt.

Q: So even at the time when it was more or less accepted that in the candy factory or the bakery or wherever that taking a little bit was OK, where nuclear materials were concerned, people just didn't even consider it?

SMIRNOV: No. There are entire family dynasties of workers there. My father and mother worked there, and other families, too. Because it was considered an elite plant, they paid well, and we have rich scientific potential. All of the workers are highly skilled. Everyone was satisfied--everyone was fine when there was economic stability and we got our salaries. What all this production was for - no one knew. The production plan was the law and delivered. Where it went afterward no one knew it was secret, and at home you didn't tell the nieghbors where you worked.

Q: And you said that what you stole was ninety percent enriched?

SMIRNOV: It was Uranium 238 enriched to ninety percent with Uranium 235. I don't know if there is a higher grade when it is already Uranium 235. I doubt there's any higher enrichment.

Q: And did you ever think about who, besides the companies that you were going to knock on their door, did you ever think about who might end up with this material?

SMIRNOV: No, I didn't go that far. I didn't think about that. I just had to sell it. But to whom, what they would do with it later...

You can't explode it. You still had to add several times more, in order to make a bomb, an atom bomb. That would have to be done at a specialized laboratory and there are not too many of them in the world. But that would be the problem of those who bought it. Because people uneducated in this field, they, of course, could threaten someone that they would blow something up or spill it on their heads.

If I'd sold it, I wouldn't have cared what they'd do with it. I only knew that they could not do anything specific with it, unless they got it to some place where there are laboratories, but I didn't think that far.

Q: And you've said several times that you thought about it all only later. When you thought about it, what were those thoughts?

SMIRNOV: When the investigator summoned me. We began to discuss what sort of sentence I could expect to get. It was an open and shut case. I only met once with my counsel and then he was at the trial. I didn't have to pay the lawyer since I didn't have any money. It was a public defender. The investigator didn't exactly make me hopeful, but said the sentence would not be terribly long.

Only then I began to think, "What have I done?" But earlier, I had only thought about my family, not about myself. When he said I wouldn't get too much on those particular counts, charges, I accepted the idea that I would get three or four years - no more. I began to think about the stupid thing I had done. What if I'd sold it? Even if I had sold it for such a small price - a thousand times cheaper than it was worth--100,000 rubles, not dollars, but rubles - but they never leave the middleman alive anyway, I told myself, they would have killed me. But this way, at least I'm alive. Still, my life was ruined. How would my friends and neighbors react? I hadn't seen anyone - I was isolated in jail. And then I began to think: I had committed a senseless act and the future was also bleak because even if I had sold it, I would have been eliminated. After a month or two, they would have done me in. Later I learned about how many such case where the middlemen were eliminated. They always cut off the chain.

So I decided that if I come out alive and well, I will tell everyone, "Whatever you do, don't do what I did!" It's totally pointless. If you steal Low Enriched Uranium, then nobody needs it. Only perhaps for fuel assemblies in some reactors, but reactors need several dozen tons. It just makes no sense. That is what I will always tell others. Theft of radioactive materials is the most senseless, stupidest thing that could be. If you steal Highly Enriched Uranium, then at least there might seem to be some sense in it--if you steal 20 kilograms or something, then somebody can make something out of it if it gets to a good lab. But the person would not survive. Regardless of how much he gets--a million, a billion--he would still be killed.

Q: Did you ever feel remorse about what you had done?

SMIRNOV: Of course, I really regret that mistake. But what can I do? Speak to others so that they learn from my example and don't create their own example. I often meet with people from work and those who remained friends. Of course I feel regret, not because I stole this product. They didn't even know what to do with it--it's not possible to add it to the totals. But I worry about the disposal of it. To this day, I don't know what they have done with that uranium, with my kilogram and a half.

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