Readings


"Atomic Theft and Atomic Security:
What the General Prosecutor's Documents Say"

by Alexander Mytsykov,
Aide to the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation

(from: Yadernii Control #9. Sept. 1995)


Recently there has been a lot of information in the mass media based on the theme that atomic materials are being improperly stored at the plants of the nuclear complex and that it is a simple matter to carry off whatever amount you want, that a demand for these materials exists and that people who wish to take the risk can make some easy money... These claims have been based on the scandals around the arrests of several people in Germany with radioactive materials supposedly from a Russian source.

What is actually happening?... Materials of the prosecutor's oversight review, such as announcements from the local prosecutors, make it possible to look at the problem of providing proper storage and physical defense of nuclear materials without any sensationalism or wish to inflame the situation. At the same time, this data that we are now presenting, allows us a degree of accuracy and objectivity to judge whether it is still possible to steal nuclear materials from Russian enterprises and if it is possible, why.

Two introductory notes. First, it is well-known that just as any dangerous production process brings along a risk of an accident, any work with any valuable materials carries with it a danger that there will be attempts to steal it. Production without such risk and danger can't exist. It is a different matter to bring them to a minimum and create several degrees of defense and work out a system of accounting, guarding, and control. Second, the problem of accounting, storage and physical defense of nuclear materials has always existed, it does exist, and it will continue to exist. Why? As the Minister of Atomic Energy Mikhailov announced in Yadernii Control [#2, p9-11] "nobody knows the exact amount of power used in the reactions of these materials or the exact amount of the re-processed materials that are lost for technological reasons in the production process."

In general it must be admitted that the Russian enterprises (of Minatom and the military-industrial complex) have a high enough level of accounting, control, and physical defense of nuclear materials. And today there is no basis to claim, as several sources are doing, that nuclear materials are flowing out all over the place. The prosecutor's review has attested to the fact that much has been done and is being done to provide for proper storage. True, because of lack of money it is being done far too slowly.

At the same time, the data from the prosecutor's review testify to the fact that: cases of theft of nuclear materials have happened, and importantly -- the possibility of future thefts has not disappeared. From the criminal cases (there have been about ten over the past four years) it is apparent at a glance how they get around the notorious "kilogram unit of measure" and other gaps in the accounting and storage of nuclear materials.

Let's take the case of the guilt of the apparatchik of the Echo-Luch plant (Podolsk), Smirnov. A graduate of the Moscow Chemical-Technological Institute, he worked as an engineer, and junior scientific worker, a master, and in the period before the crime, as an apparatchik and he knew the technological process for processing radioactive materials inside out. And not only the process. The investigation determined that Smirnov made use of other knowledge as well: the knowledge of lack of accounting for materials and finished product. The leniency of the guards also played a role. By repeatedly carrying out 50-70 grams of un-accounted for technological excess, over several times he was able to steal over 1.5 kg of uranium-235 in the hopes it would be profitable to sell. Along with the uranium, Smirnov stole three containers for the storage of radioactive materials.

Another channel for the leaks of nuclear materials is illustrated by the case of the guilt of the supply-keeper Yatsevich, at special-production plant No. 103 at Chelyabinsk-70. Having come to an agreement with the plant's engineer Shelomentsev, he stole 5.5 kilograms of non-enriched uranium-238. Yatsevich didn't shrink from other valuable materials either. During the investigation, a curious detail was noticed: since the storage had not conducted an inventory, no excesses, nor shortages could be determined. And besides the uranium, he stole 151 grams of platinum, 13.5 kg titanium, 49.5 kg of tantalum. The explanation was simple: the so-called "operative-accounting" of the storage was fundamentally an accounting of special-production and allowed Yatsevich room for criminal maneuvering.

The third case more closely reflects the complexity of the situation. In Arzamas-16, an unemployed man named Vasya was detained with 5.1 kg of uranium-238. It turned out that through a group of citizens, he was trying to market the uranium in the Ukraine, but he wasn't able to do so. When the analysis was carried out, it turned out that the uranium was LOCAL, from the VNIIEF (Energy-Physics Institute) at Arzamas. Who, when, and under what conditions this nuclear material was carried out of the territory of the VNIIEF was unable to be determined during the investigation unfortunately. But the fact remains, the leak occurred.

It is logical to propose that lessons have been learned from these cases. However, I am afraid that the lessons have only been partially learned. An analysis of the situation that was carried out in 1994 determined that the methods that existed in the storage facilities of Minatom for inventory and accounting do not allow for a trustworthy account of the presence of active nuclear materials. For example, in storage No. 1 of the Luch Factory, the standard accounting of uranium isn't carried out even during the final stage of re-processing. The finished product is stored in containers that are not stamped [i.e. no identification of the contents]. The enriched uranium is measured only at the completion of the entire technical cycle.

The possibility of leaks of radioactive materials is increased many times by the system of determining the normal amount of technical losses. For example, at Mayak the normal level of loss has been determined statistically to be between 0.08-0.85 %. Taking into account the fact that there are tons of material produced at Mayak, this range could result in any amount of unaccounted for surpluses.

The entry-pass control points of these plants are not equipped with the technical means to detect radioactive materials which in conjunction with what we set out above provides the real possibility for unsanctioned illegal activity to be carried out through them.

On the basis of these materials, the General Prosecutor sent a formal statement to the Minister of Atomic Energy, and an informational note to the government and to the Russian President. There is no account of the reaction of the president. In terms of the government, it ordered that several agencies be informed of these cases, including Minatom. Victor Mikhailov issued a special order sent to the head of administration, the administrations, the committee chairmen, and the directors of the concerns and Joint-Stock companies ordering them to implement strict and regular control, to create a commission and to verify the condition of accounting and storage of nuclear material in detail, and to strengthen the forces providing for the security of the materials, and so on. In the conclusion of the order, it was stated that enterprises that do not carry out these measures will be subject to strict disciplinary measures, up to breaking of contracts.

However, in spite of this impressive resolution, over the last few months the physical defense of the dangerous nuclear objects in many areas has not improved. The many facts of non-compliance and progressive decay of the defensive structures call for alarm. Naturally, the storage of nuclear materials, and nuclear and radiation safety are the issues that are most unsettling. If we can say that the storage is more or less adequate (in spite the insufficiencies, real loss and theft have not been brought to light), then the problem of safety is a completely unaddressed problem.

It is understood that the unfavorable situation in which the enterprises are in came about over decades and it will take years to mop it up. However the elementary laxity and lack of control must be overcome by force. For example, at the ship repair factory "Nerpa" in Murmansk, part of the perimeter border is not illuminated, and control of access to the defended zones in these places is not carried out. The check points have no back-up communication connections with the guards, the posts are not equipped with an alarm system, and the water and shore areas are not under constant surveillance.

At the factory, the transfer of atomic warheads and special parts takes place on the railroad ramp, which is located outside of the controlled zone of the installation. The ramp, it turns out, is only under guard during the time that the transfer work is carried out and is the most vulnerable place to seizure by special forces or theft of its units or mechanisms.

At Sevmashpredpriyatii (North-Machine-Enterprise) the storage of nuclear material on the first floor of the reactor facility happens in a building that does not have an alarm system, is not under guard, and which does not have the required locks on the doors.

The depot of technical materials for the guards at most of the enterprises have grown old and require repair. At the check points, and the entrance points for people, cars, and trains there is no equipment to control for unsanctioned passage of nuclear materials. For now, the guards are limited to random checks and searches.

A check carried out by the soldiers at the check point of the electro-mechanical factory Avante-Guard in the city of Kremlev (Arzamas-16) illustrates the effectiveness of such control. It was noticed that the sentries let through one out of every two or three people who carried out material as part of the pre-arranged check.

An even more depressing picture was discovered at Severodvinsk. The waters of the port lead straight to an extremely dangerous storage area for its decommissioned atomic submarines. In the opinion of specialists, the passage of time or an accident could lead to radioactive pollution. The storage area has formed over many years. How it all happened is obvious from the example of submarine K-64, named in the official documents of Order 900. After an accident in the sub's steam-generating unit in June of 1972 it was decommissioned from its service in the Navy, it was cut up, and its power-plant part along with the reactor module was sent to PO Dubrava. The former Union Ministry of the Submarine-building Industry and the Navy proposed to package up the power-plant and bury it at sea. However in 1985, while the preparatory work for this was going on, an international convention was passed, forbidding the dumping of radioactive materials into the sea and so they were unable to dispose of the material in the way they were planning.

After four years, it was decided that the reactor module would be cut out of the power-plant part and would be put in a proposed long-term storage for similar submarine modules, but without the active zones. The work was planned to be completed by 1991, however to this day it still has not been completed, so the sub (or what is left of it) was given a pass to go to Severodvinsk.

Recent work by Gosatomnadzor inspectors has shown that the preservation of reactor modules (which had been constructed under the presupposition that they would be dumped at sea) is not enough to ensure the safety requirements for long-term floating or land-based storage. It is related, in part, to the fact that the stored materials are combustible. Moreover, more than 20 years of floating storage has brought to light a number of construction defects in Order 900. The power-plant with the reactor module rests on the bottom at low tide, but as the tide comes in the waves cause it to hit against the bottom, which could burst apart the hermetically sealed module, destroying the active zone and leaking radioactivity into the sea.

The government of Russia responded to the General Procurator's note with its own assignment. It is too early to judge whether this will once and for all resolve the fact of the submarines. But it is now understood that the fate of such semi-ownerless nuclear objects has attracted the attention of not only the controlling agencies and the ecologists, but also even organized criminal groups.

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