[This transcript is provided as a service of Journal Graphics. The WGBH Educational Foundation is not responsible for any errors or mischaracterizations in this transcript. JES]

FRONTLINE Show #1504

Air Date: November 19, 1996

Loose Nukes

NARRATOR: They were places so secret they were not marked on any maps. One was even buried 800 feet beneath a mountain, accessible only by special train. In these secret cities spread across the vastness of the Soviet Union, the essential ingredients of its nuclear arsenal were produced: twice as much plutonium as the United States, half again as much highly enriched uranium.

And then the unimaginable happened. The Soviet Union simply ceased to exist. In the collapse, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and 1,400 tons of nuclear materials were put at risk.

THOMAS COCHRAN, Natural Resources Defense Council: Plutonium and highly enriched uraniums are the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons and the information needed is publicly available. The only thing that stands between us and another nuclear explosion is the availability of these nuclear materials.

FRANK von HIPPEL, Princeton University: A small nuclear explosion, even a terrorist bomb, would be on the order of 1,000 tons of TNT and that would mean that the area around that explosion in Oklahoma City that was affected would be 100 times larger.

NARRATOR: Finding a needle in a haystack would be more likely than finding a nuclear device hidden by a terrorist in an American city. Smuggled drugs are easier to detect.

DAVID KAY, former U.N. Nuclear Inspector: And you're talking about, really, handfuls of size of quantities of material -- in terms of uranium, bowling-ball sizes -- to smuggle. You'd have to be, I think, extremely foolish to say it could never happen here.

JOHN DEUTCH, Director, Central Intelligence Agency: The diversion threat is real. There are serious customers for strategic nuclear materials who are up to no good.

NARRATOR: The United States has committed more than $450 million next year on what the CIA calls "a major threat to our national security." But it is enough? Can it work? Tonight a year-long FRONTLINE investigation tracks how nuclear material is being smuggled out of Russia.

The Soviet people were long trained to evade the rules and trick their rulers. They have now found themselves in a new Russia with no rules at all. The revolution the last decade brought about has often looked more like a brawl than a democracy. Chaos and corruption are as common as capitalism and commerce.

SERGEI TARASENKO, Fund for Realism and Policy: [through interpreter] The majority of businesses here operate on the edge of the law, to put it mildly. All of us, to one degree or another, walk along the edge of the law and often break it. Most people don't have the moral right to seek the defense of the law because they themselves break it.

NARRATOR: For the first time in history, crime and chaos plague a state in possession of huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons and nuclear material and that makes the new Russia a dangerous place for everyone.

[Podolsk, Russia] His name is Leonid Smirnov. He is the first known thief of bomb-grade nuclear material in the world. For 25 years he worked as a lab engineer here at Luch, a plant that manufactured nuclear reactors for the Soviet space program.

Over five months, day in and day out, he filched tiny amounts of uranium until he had stolen more than three pounds of the same material that fueled the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

LEONID SMIRNOV: [through interpreter] I lived from paycheck to paycheck, but it was stable. Then came the reform of 1992 and money lost its value. That was when I got this idea to siphon off uranium little by little. We had a highly enriched uranium, up to 90 percent enriched uranium-235.

INTERVIEWER: And did you ever have any close calls?

LEONID SMIRNOV: [through interpreter] A situation where I could have been caught? No. There really weren't any 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. There were no detectors, so no. No such thing.

NARRATOR: The uranium Smirnov stole is the material would-be bomb builders prefer, easy enough to use to improvise a nuclear device. But who might get hold of it didn't seem to concern him.

LEONID SMIRNOV: [through interpreter] What was there to worry about? After all, I had such hot stuff, I'd have no trouble selling it. The main thing was to get hold of it and I thought I would just wander around Moscow. There are all sorts of firms and offices there. I would just look at their names, many foreign and Russian companies. I would just hint about the stuff I had. If someone believed me, then we could talk.

NARRATOR: In the new Moscow, corruption is the most stable currency.

LEONID FITUNI, Criminologist: [through interpreter] It's an opportunity to grab the money, run and hide where no one can catch you. Interpreting the market in this primitive way, people are ready to use any means to get a huge amount of money in one go and then disappear to spend the rest of their life in Hawaii or somewhere else in the United States, say in "Little Odessa" in New York. That's the real danger.

VALERI MENSHIKOV, Consultant, National Security Council: [through interpreter] Only our conscience tells us if something can or cannot be done. Well, sometimes people have problems with their conscience and this is serious.

NARRATOR: Over the months he amassed the uranium in a lead container on his balcony, no one at the Luch factory noticed anything missing. Smirnov was finally arrested, but only by accident, swept up with a couple of drunken friends he met at the local train station. He'd been on his way to Moscow carrying his nuclear loot. It was a crime without precedent. It would be met with official confusion.

HELENA LUKYANOVA, Police Investigator: [through interpreter] He didn't mention the person's name. He just said he was going to give the containers to that person. He didn't tell us anything else.

NARRATOR: Slow to react to the gravity of the crime, investigators, too, were stumbling their way through a strange new world.

ALEXANDER NICOLINKO, Senior Investigator: [through interpreter] I think the unsettled state of social and economic life is a serious problem in our country. That's my personal point of view. It's a serious problem and shouldn't be punished with imprisonment. He shouldn't be blamed for the circumstances of his life, a top, intelligent professional who got a miserable salary.

NARRATOR: Jailed awaiting trial, Smirnov was allowed to marry, a ceremony witnessed by the cameras of the local KGB.

ALEXANDER NICOLINKO: [through interpreter] I don't think of his as a real criminal. He took every precaution against harming anyone.

NARRATOR: He was, in the end, freed, punished with only three years' probation.

LEONID SMIRNOV: [through interpreter] I just needed a new refrigerator and a new gas stove. I didn't need a big profit. I just needed to live through the tough times when I wanted to buy something but couldn't because of inflation. My salary couldn't keep up and I couldn't buy anything. I just needed to buy a few essentials and then work honestly.

NARRATOR: The director at Luch was stunned by the lenient sentence, but insisted Smirnov's crime was unique.

RAVMIR FRAISHTROUT, Director, Luch Factory: [through interpreter] Why aren't the same concerns expressed about American scientists? If someone has money, he can buy any scientist. But no one mentions Germans, British, Americans. Why is it Russian scientists are so vulnerable?

My point of view is the opposite. I think they are much less vulnerable. I'm sure the attempts to take advantage of the current situation in Russia and produce a nuclear bomb are doomed to failure. It is impossible.

NARRATOR: Smirnov was the only thief of bomb-grade nuclear material officially acknowledged by Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy. FRONTLINE would discover that he is not alone and the Russian government knows it.

By 1992 the word had spread: Anything that set a Geiger counter clicking was a hot commodity. For the Russians making deals to plunder their country's resources, nuclear materials promised colossal profits.

Most of the offers were scams, as the Russians claim -- flim-flam men offering junk scavenged from radioactive waste dumps and hospital X-ray machines -- until August 10th, 1994.

Munich:

FORREST SAWYER, ABC News: In Germany today, officials say they have seized more plutonium, the type that can be used to make a nuclear weapon.

NARRATOR: It was the largest amount of bomb-grade nuclear material seized outside the borders of a nuclear superpower.

DAN RATHER, CBS News: Germany said it can prove that Russia is the source.

NARRATOR: The world trembled. But the German operation had been a sting, the buyer an undercover cop.

MARK HIBBS, European Editor, "Nucleonics Weekly": That's the case that everybody is waiting to see happen and when it happened, it happened exactly how everybody feared it was going to happen. It was the Tom Clancy novel coming to life, a bunch of smugglers--

NARRATOR: Mark Hibbs was critical of the Germans from the beginning for their apparent intention to embarrass the Russians.

MARK HIBBS: There was a magnificently orchestrated leak to the press that suggested we're talking about weapons material. We're talking about a super-organized nuclear Mafia in a post-communist country that everyone was afraid of.

NARRATOR: German intelligence hailed it as a blow against that Mafia, but the fact remained that the buyer was a cop.

MARK HIBBS: People are now asking the question, "Was this a case which was unique or was this a case which is the tip of the iceberg?" The fact of the matter is, is that right now we don't know whether this is the tip of the iceberg or whether this is the whole iceberg.

NARRATOR: [Moscow] The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, MINATOM, was enraged that the Germans had failed to notify them, and yet claimed they weren't in control.

GEORGII KAUROV, Ministry of Atomic Energy: [through interpreter] We're unhappy that when this plutonium was found, the origin is immediately established: Russia. Why Russia? How can it be proved that this is from Russia?

NARRATOR: MINATOM spun its own version of where the plutonium came from.

BERND SCHMIDBAUER, German Intelligence Coordinator: [through interpreter] The spokesman from MINATOM said on German television that the material came from Germany, that we had flown it by plane to Moscow and then flown it back-- an idiotic concept. But by this you can see how earnestly MINATOM is trying to undercut the true story.

GEORGII KAUROV: [through interpreter] You know how they check baggage in customs. It just can't get through. It's not a sewing needle, you know. I find all of this very surprising. The whole case is so shaky.

NARRATOR: In fact, the smuggler would eventually testify that in the chaos of Moscow's airport he had simply kicked the suitcase containing three quarters of a pound of bomb-grade plutonium along the far side of the customs desk. But German surveillance had missed the moment when he bought it, and so failed to nail down the crucial fact: where the plutonium came from. That left it to the scientists.

[Karlsruhe, Germany] It is a question the scientific detectives at the European Nuclear Forensic Institute told producer Sherry Jones they have been investigating since the plutonium was sped here in the first hours after the Munich bust.

IAN RAY, Nuclear Chemist: Here we have a small quantity of the powder from this particular find of pure plutonium.

NARRATOR: They explained that, in production, nuclear material takes on individual characteristics, fingerprints which can reveal whether the sample is from weapons stocks or commercial reactors. As in any detective work, if you have fingerprints on file you can match up what you've discovered and know the precise facility where the plutonium seized in Munich was produced.

IAN RAY: And we found these rod-shaped particles which were identified as plutonium oxide. Then we found these hexagonal cross-section particles of uranium oxide-- very, very typical under a microscope. And we were able to pick out individual particles.

And interestingly, the probe we used was a piece of human hair, a human eyelash, because this happens to have the correct sort of size and, important, the correct type of flexibility. And it's got to be a male eyelash because females put too much on their eyes to make themselves look beautiful and that takes away the elasticity which is required.

We're starting to look for traces of pollen, fibers, dust, which will give us some clue as to where the material might have come from and in whose hands it might have been. It's a bit more difficult than the case of the drugs people because our materials normally aren't handled. They're handled inside glove boxes and then they're very carefully sealed up.

LUTHAR KOCH, Director, Nuclear Chemistry: People usually don't touch plutonium with their fingers because they always wear gloves, so you won't find any human tissue on it.

NARRATOR: It was an important clue. The material had not been in the hands of amateurs. Whoever had stolen it knew what they were doing.

IAN RAY: It's been handled by experts. There's no question.

LUTHAR KOCH: From this unique process, as he showed it to you, you can identify the place where this process was-- is used.

INTERVIEWER: And in the case of this particular sample, do we now know the place where that hexagonal--

LUTHAR KOCH: I know places where these processes have been tried out, yes.

INTERVIEWER: For example?

LUTHAR KOCH: Not in the European Union.

NARRATOR: Scientists here may be privately convinced that the plutonium came from Russia, but neither Russia nor the United States will deposit its nuclear fingerprints in an international data bank. Without that match nothing could be proved.

[Moscow] Russian authorities continued to deny that the plutonium came from its stockpile, but in Germany the Munich smuggler would secretly testify he bought the plutonium from a man in Moscow. In June of 1994 he paid $2,000 for a sample. It was handed over at October Revolution Square. In August he bought 360 grams more. And that is all we knew until we got a break from a surprising source.

FRONTLINE received a copy of a confidential letter sent to the German authorities from the Russian FSB, a successor to the KGB. The letter asked the Germans to interrogate the Munich smuggler about his Russian connections and included the names and photographs of five men under criminal investigation.

The most intriguing detail was that two of the five lived in a Russian town that was home to several nuclear research facilities, Obninsk. We set out to find them: Oleg Astafiev and Eduard Baranov.

[Obninsk] Obninsk: a town of 110,000 people and more than 10 tons of bomb-grade nuclear material. During most of the cold war it was closed, impossible to enter without permission from the KGB. Today Moscow and the temptations of the new Russia are 90 minutes away by commuter train.

The FSB letter said that the Munich smuggler illegally bought 400 grams of a radioactive material from the two Obninsk men, but we only had names-- no addresses, no telephone numbers. We enlisted Valeri Yakov, deputy editor of the newspaper Izvestia, to help us find them. He is renowned in Russia for his coverage of the war in Chechnya.

VALERI YAKOV: [through interpreter] They don't have it. They don't have either of their names, neither Baranov nor Astafiev. They're not listed. They only have lists for those people who register their telephone.

If it's a really small town and everyone knows each other, you can ask, but otherwise there's no way of finding someone. There's no such thing as a directory or a bureau where you can find out where someone lives. You have to go to the police or the internal passport agency.

NARRATOR: Our official attempts to find the two men were blocked. In Moscow the requests for interviews on the subject of nuclear theft had been either denied or dodged. Most people seemed to be suddenly called away on so-called business trips whenever we were in town.

VALERI YAKOV: [through interpreter] When I called my contacts working in investigations on different subjects, I understood talking to them that everyone's trying to wait. There's very little time before the elections and in Russia everyone is awaiting who will come to power. Will Yeltsin and his entourage stay or will the communists come to power? Then we'll have to answer for every word not carefully spoken now. It's a period of sitting and waiting. Everyone is waiting.

NARRATOR: It seemed we had reached another dead end. But if the material had come from Obninsk, it might have come from a place like the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, the largest of the seven nuclear facilities in town. By 1994, this prestigious research center was a collection of highly trained, poorly paid scientists. Security was no better than at Luch.

GENNADY PSHAKIN, Safeguards Coordinator: The system was quite, quite weak. We had lots of, you know, holes which go straight from the material-handling area to outside of the building. So it means that theoretically there was lots of possibility to take this material out of the building.

NARRATOR: Unlike the Karlsruhe nuclear lab in Germany, where it took more than an hour to clear ourselves and our equipment, at Obninsk the director of security simply waved us in. It was more convenient, of course, but an unsettling glimpse of a system in transition, one that had always based its security not on gates and guards, but generous rewards for its nuclear elite and the iron grip of the KGB.

The institute here designed and built the world's largest fast-breeder research reactor. The building that houses it contains almost eight tons of bomb-grade material. The reactor is fueled by rods loaded with disks, each filled with uranium or plutonium-- small, easy to swipe and stuff in a pocket. A crude nuclear bomb could be exploded with less than 100 of them.

IGOR MATVEYENKO, Director, Experimental Physics: [through interpreter] The quantity of disks we're dealing with is quite significant-- about 70,000, if you're counting highly enriched nuclear materials. Last year we created a special file of data on plutonium disks-- about 15,000. We plan to continue this work through the year so that next year we can have an exact, proven file of data on the disks of highly enriched nuclear materials. Besides, the quantity of these materials is increasing all the time as the research continues.

NARRATOR: In a system dependent on its absolute control over people, the Soviet Union never felt the need to conduct comprehensive inventories at its nuclear facilities. The first are happening only now and only with the assistance of scientists from U.S. nuclear weapons labs.

The security situation at the Russian sites selected for the initial lab-to-lab quick fixes is classified "secret," but the institute here was at the top of the list of those that were most vulnerable. The first step was to secure the building housing the fast breeder-reactor. Only then did they begin to count the nuclear material inside.

WAYNE RUHTER, Lawrence Livermore Lab: We just put a disk of highly enriched uranium and we're measuring the gamma rays that we analyze with a computer here. We can determine what the enrichment of the uranium is. And we're still in the process of testing this equipment. There are some features of the equipment that are not quite up to specification at this time. That's one of the reasons I'm here, is trying to understand what the problems are.

INTERVIEWER: Most of the accounting, it was by weight only?

WAYNE RUHTER: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: And what were the implications of that?

WAYNE RUHTER: Weight will only give you mass, but it doesn't tell you whether you're really looking at anything radioactive.

INTERVIEWER: So in theory, someone could substitute the uranium in those rods--

WAYNE RUHTER: Yes, in theory that could be done.

NARRATOR: Before Munich there was no central system to verify how much nuclear material had been produced here, informally transferred between departments or stored.

GENNADY PSHAKIN: Smart guy could say, "Did you verify this container once in a month, once in a year or once in 10 years?" We say, "Yeah. Maybe." So it means that possibility of lose something,- it's always exist because it's a-- an unscientific approach. Never could say 100 percent. It's always some possibility.

NARRATOR: But officially the Ministry of Atomic Energy continued to insist "No losses of plutonium have been reported at any of our facilities."

With Valery Yakov we continued our hunt for the two Obninsk men. And on a summer Friday at 5:00 o'clock we got a break. The on-duty policeman was playing a game on his computer instead of paying attention to the fact that we asked about two men under criminal investigation. He gave us an address.

VALERI YAKOV: [subtitles] Good day.

WOMAN: [through interpreter] He's not here.

VALERI YAKOV: [through interpreter] Will he be in?

WOMAN: [through interpreter] No. He's out of town.

VALERI YAKOV: [through interpreter] I'm from the newspaper Izvestia.

WOMAN: [through interpreter] Izvestia? Oh, God!

VALERI YAKOV: [through interpreter] No, what's so terrible? It's a newspaper just like any other. Do you know about this situation?

WOMAN: [through interpreter] What can I tell you? I'm quite surprised that a newspaper is interested in him. What is he, some kind of hero?

VALERI YAKOV: [through interpreter] Hero? All of us are heroes. Invisible, of course.

WOMAN: [through interpreter] I don't know.

NARRATOR: Though we never found him, we had found what we believed to be his apartment in housing that had been built for the employees of the institute. By now, rumors that the Munich material might have been stolen from Obninsk had swept through the place.

ANATOLY ZRODNIKOV, Director: [through interpreter] Well, all I can say is that I've taken inventory and everything is accounted for. All employees are in place. And even when we get a less than sober employee-- well, you know what I mean, it's Russia. My report is made. All my people are in place, all accounted for.

NARRATOR: In fact, the rumors sparked a debate among the scientists here. Could the plutonium have come from their stockpile? Who could have stolen it?

GENNADY PSHAKIN: [through interpreter] It's very painful to think that someone right there at your side could do something to damage-- not just cheat you out of $10 or 5 rubles, but do something that could bring about a great misfortune for all of us. It's a terrible feeling. And if you succumb to it, you create in your mind even more doubts and suspicion.

We never talked about an inside threat, only about people outside the collective, about an attack, about war. And now, with the help of our American colleagues, we are facing the insider problem.

NARRATOR: There is an unofficial anxiety among the physicists who have long worked with the deadly material, even when they joke about it.

IGOR MATVEYENKO: [holds up picture of a dog] Old security system.

NARRATOR: Officially, they are being kept in the dark.

INTERVIEWER: And so your intelligence services have not provided-- have not called you about this. You're just reading the same stories I'm reading in the newspaper.

ANATOLY ZRODNIKOV: [through interpreter] Absolutely right. You may even have more information than I do. I don't read the Western press, only what comes here.

NARRATOR: [Moscow] The problem is bigger than the institute in Obninsk. Russia's nuclear stockpile stretches across the country's 11 time zones. Huge amounts are less than 10 miles from the Kremlin at the Kurchatov Institute, also an early focus of U.S.-Russian lab-to-lab cooperation. And here, in the sea of Moscow's official obfuscation, is another island of frankness, where physicists like Alexander Roumiantsev believe they are in a race against the black marketeers.

ALEXANDER ROUMIANTSEV, Physicist, Kurchatov Institute: Okay, let's drive. Until the year 1973, this building was considered as one of the most secret buildings in the Kurchatov Institute because of research work.

INTERVIEWER: Any idea of how many tons of material is in there?

ALEXANDER ROUMIANTSEV: The total weight exceeds 200 tons.

INTERVIEWER: As they said to me there, some of it is attractive to theft because it's small. It can be carried.

ALEXANDER ROUMIANTSEV: Small, extremely small. You may just put it in your pockets, 96 percent enriched uranium. It's like Italian spaghetti.

NARRATOR: Material as easy to pick up as Italian spaghetti, measured not in ounces, but in tons. And though other work has begun, this is the only building where the U.S.-assisted security measures are complete.

ALEXANDER ROUMIANTSEV: This building contains material which is almost by the order of magnitudes exceeds the dreams of Saddam Hussein.

NARRATOR: There are rogue states besides Hussein's Iraq known to have nuclear dreams.

DAVID KAY: Pakistan, North Korea. The Iranian program is probably the most advanced in that particular area that we have to worry about. We didn't do a good job of detecting the Iraqi programs, but we--

NARRATOR: David Kay led the U.N. team who uncovered Iraq's nuclear program in the aftermath of the Gulf war.

DAVID KAY: Smuggling allows you to compress a program that, in most countries, is probably a 5- to 10-year technological hurdle into days or weeks and no detection system is adequate for that sort of challenge.

NARRATOR: [Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan] Protecting nuclear material at the source is the only sure way to prevent it from being stolen or sold. When it was reported that Iranian nuclear experts had visited a forgotten plant in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, the U.S. moved in. In a secret race against the onset of winter, code named "Sapphire," Americans evacuated to the United States enough uranium to build 25 of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima.

DAVID KAY: You have to say that in the chaos of Russia, the Russians had forgotten that that material was there. That's even more frightening. One wonders what else they've forgotten, how many more Operation Sapphires will have to be pulled out.

NARRATOR: [Landshut, Germany] No one has yet tracked stolen Russian nuclear material to either rogue states or terrorist groups, but there is plenty of evidence of an underground trade in nuclear materials. One piece of it was revealed in a little known incident in a small German town, an incident that would prove if buyers emerge there are plenty of people willing to fill their orders.

In Landshut, the most hustling of the would-be nuclear salesmen was Gustav Illich, a slippery Slovak musician who moonlighted in the weapons market, always on the lookout for a customer.

GUSTAV ILLICH: [through interpreter] We met in Landshut at the Hotel Eisenhofe and I offered him MiGs, those Russian helicopters and also various kinds of metals that I had at the time-- Scandium. I also had nickel and aluminum. And there were handguns, like pistols and Scorpions. And he said, "Oh, Scorpions. I want those."

NARRATOR: But this time Illich was talking to an undercover cop, the same buyer who worked the Munich sting.

HERMANN ZIEGENHAUS, President, Bavarian Police: [through interpreter] The case of Landshut, which happened during the summer of 1994, started with tips, with the discovery that people were in the market, looking for buyers for nuclear material.

NARRATOR: As the classified report on the German operation reveals, the undercover buyer would be able to procure six different sample of radioactive materials, four from Gustav Illich.

GUSTAV ILLICH: [through interpreter] When we were leaving, he leaned towards me and asked in a very low voice if I would be able to obtain plutonium or uranium for him. And I said, "You know, that's the least problem because I have a friend who's a director in Kazakhstan who's sitting on two tons of it."

HERMAN ZIEGENHAUS: [through interpreter] These middlemen are people who try to make a buck out of anything. They would, for the right money, sell their own grandmother tomorrow and the day after tomorrow they would sell their own sister into the red light district.

NARRATOR: The Kazakhstan connection would not pan out, but the police wiretaps record that the circle of traders widened, each pressing his commercial contacts for what he could shake loose as the undercover buyer pressed for bomb-grade material. One of those who would be caught in the snare was Vaclav Havlik, a Czech bar owner who also moonlighted in trading with the former Soviet Union. But until Illich drew him in on the nuclear deal he'd mostly been importing food.

VACLAV HAVLIK: [through interpreter] I didn't take it that seriously because I didn't believe such a powerless little man like me could ever gain access to these kinds of materials. A Czech proverb says "Opportunity makes a thief." Even a decent person can make a mistake, right? When somebody is tempting you with something for a long time, he'll get you, in the end.

INTERVIEWER: And where-- do you know where it was that you were going to be able to get more and more uranium, once you had made this first contact?

VACLAV HAVLIK: [through interpreter] Well, I would have obtained it somehow. Let's just say if it hadn't been a fake set-up and everything had worked out and the buyer was satisfied, then the uranium would flow out of Russia.

NARRATOR: In early June, 1994, according to police wiretaps, Illich told the undercover buyer he had tracked almost 90 pounds of uranium supposedly in the hands of former officers in the Russian KGB.

GUSTAV ILLICH: [through interpreter] One could get into these certain circles only through the intelligence services-- those networks. And I hooked myself up through my friends, all of whom belonged to the KGB. And that's how it went-- personal referrals.

NARRATOR: Through a referral from yet another middleman, Illich got wind of a group in Prague looking to sell uranium. They were advertising it as bomb-grade. He got a sample and delivered it to the undercover buyer. When he promised to produce the remainder if the buyer would meet him at a stop on the Autobahn, the Germans decided to arrest him.

GUSTAV ILLICH: [through interpreter] I never thought he might be some kind of crook, that they were setting a trap for me. It never crossed my mind because I never dealt with these kind of people, who play tricks, because in the circles where I move, they don't waste too much time on people who play tricks. Such a person has a short life.

NARRATOR: When the cops moved in for the bust, they were stunned to find only pellets of low-enriched uranium. Illich would serve just 19 months in prison and the stash of bomb-grade uranium would be left behind, somewhere in Prague.

[Prague] It would be six months before the uranium hidden in Prague would surface and, when it did, six pounds of highly enriched uranium were seized, about a fifth of what it would take to build a bomb. It had been smuggled here by a man who came from Russia. Along with an accomplice, he had traveled from Moscow to Minsk in Belarus, to Warsaw, to Prague by train, crossing each country's border carrying his deadly contraband.

Major JAN RATHAUSKY, Bureau of Investigations: [through interpreter] He had those two cylinders with the uranium. Inside were two plastic bags containing the stuff.

NARRATOR: Czech detective Major Jan Rathausky, a newcomer to nuclear crime, investigated the case.

INTERVIEWER: And so he put these in his pockets and he got on the train in Moscow.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] No, no. Not in his pockets. He just put it inside his underwear. I can't demonstrate because, in my case, it's not possible. He's a slim person and he got trousers that were too big and inside the trousers leg he put those containers. So he had one here and another one over here. He put a belt on and when crossing the borders, he stood up and stayed by the window.

So after the customs inspection finished, he went back to the bathroom. He pulled it out, put it in a suitcase and put it in the overhead compartment. So that's how he got it through.

NARRATOR: By the time he arrived in Prague, the middlemen in Landshut had been chasing after bomb-grade material for several months.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] So the Russian arrived here and brought with him two containers of highly enriched uranium without knowing at all if he would find any buyer. He came, as we say, like a blind man.

NARRATOR: That "blind man" is Alexander Scherbinin. When he was arrested, he had just turned 31. He had a wife and child back home. He had gotten himself deeply in debt in a new Russian business scheme gone bad.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] He's a person who is very trusting, very naive, a special kind of person.

NARRATOR: Scherbinin had been instructed to meet a Czech physicist who would find a buyer. He brought proof that the uranium was bomb-grade and evidence that the thief, whoever he was, knew what was in demand.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] On the certificate, written in the Russian alphabet, there was the chemical composition of the material and how enriched it was. It said this material was enriched to 87 and some decimal point, almost 88 percent.

NARRATOR: A high enough enrichment that it could easily be used by terrorists or rogue states with enough know-how to build a bomb. And there was apparently lots more available.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] From my interrogation we found out that the Russians were able to deliver five kilograms of this material every month. They even promised that they were able to immediately deliver 40 kilograms as a one-time shipment.

NARRATOR: More middlemen would be drawn to the enterprise, scrambling for buyers, arguing among themselves about price. But even when the Russian was bunked in a boarding house on the outskirts of Prague, he made sure the uranium was close by.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] Here in this place for about a month, a month and a half, Scherbinin hid the two containers in the bushes.

NARRATOR: At times the story seemed too comic to be real.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] He hid them here, in that bush.

NARRATOR: But it was real. Someone had stolen the uranium. Someone had sent this man to Prague. The question was who. When Major Rathausky pried it out of him, it was a name we had heard before.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] A certain Mr. Baranov approached him and offered to help him get rid of his problem, his debt, if he would deliver the uranium to this country.

NARRATOR: Baranov. We began to suspect what Major Rathausky did not know, that his Baranov was the same man we had been searching for in Obninsk since we learned from the Russian letter that he was under investigation as a source of the plutonium in the Munich case.

In May of 1996, six weeks before the Russian presidential election, Major Rathausky was finally allowed to come to Moscow to interrogate Eduard Baranov. They met at the headquarters of the former KGB, now the FSB, and there, Rathausky says, Baranov confessed that he had hidden the uranium for six months before recruiting Scherbinin to smuggle it. They had been neighbors in Obninsk.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] To the question of where it came from or from whom he got it, he said, "I will not answer that."

INTERVIEWER: Baranov would not tell you who gave him the uranium or where it came from.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] No. No. He refused to answer.

INTERVIEWER: And the Russians didn't ask him?

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] No.

INTERVIEWER: That seems very surprising.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] For me it was quite a surprise because I thought that, regardless of the country, that this should be of interest to the police to solve these kinds of things. But unfortunately, the interest is not that great over there. As it is in the movie, Moscow Keeps Silent, Moscow was silent.

NARRATOR: [Obninsk, Russia] We went back to Obninsk. Along with Valery Yakov from Izvestia, we were determined to find Eduard Baranov and ask him the questions he had refused to answer when Detective Rathausky interrogated him: Who gave him the uranium and where did it come from?

VALERI YAKOV: [through interpreter] Excuse me, please. Can we speak with Eduard?

NARRATOR: Baranov would not talk to us, but during the five minutes Yakov spent inside trying to convince him, he learned enough to know we had found our man.

VALERI YAKOV: [through interpreter] This is the Eduard we are looking for. When I asked him why he was summoned to Moscow recently, he smiled and said he wouldn't be able to talk about it. I understood that it was he. I tried to convince him in many ways so that he would share at least a little bit, that little part that he can talk about.

He said he can't because he signed a paper that he won't say anything to anyone. And that's probably why he's still a free man. He's worried about his family. He showed me his young son, who was running around, and his young wife.

He said he assumes that if this information becomes known now, it would seriously impede Yeltsin's chances in the elections and maybe even would cause him to lose. I understood that it could compromise not Yeltsin himself, but the people who surround him.

NARRATOR: Someone was protecting him. We did not know who and we weren't certain he was the same Baranov implicated in smuggling the plutonium to Munich. So we took the Russian letter and the photo to show to Major Rathausky.

INTERVIEWER: [Prague] What this letter suggests, in combination with your investigation, is that at least Baranov seems to have been involved in what is known as the Munich case, as well as in your case.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] Yes, this is Baranov.

NARRATOR: It was the same man.

INTERVIEWER: He refused to speak to us and the reason that he refused was because he said he had signed an agreement with the FSB that he could stay free if he didn't talk.

Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through interpreter] It's possible. It's possible. All this actually corresponds with what I've said, that the Russians somehow do not have an interest in any investigation. That would fit with the suggestion that he signed some kind of agreement that he will not testify. That means that, as you can see, the Russian side has no interest whatsoever in investigating this case.

NARRATOR: Prague, Landshut, Munich-- the three most alarming cases all connected through this one Russian trader living in Obninsk. Baranov was protecting someone and someone was protecting him.

But in Moscow neither the FSB nor the Ministry of Atomic Energy would talk. It seemed a decision had been made at the highest levels: Russia will not publicly admit that nuclear material is leaking from its stockpiles even if they themselves have the evidence. So the question is why, a question which troubles many Russians, who are also being kept in the dark.

ALEXANDER F. YEMELYANENKOV, Deputy Editor, "Observer": [through interpreter] We should discuss people who decided to make money off such a dangerous venture and what compelled them to take such a step. Who helped them in trying to commit this crime? Who is guilty? Apparently, we just want to save face, as though we don't have this problem.

NARRATOR: The descent from superpower has been dizzying for most Russians and to admit that its deadly nuclear treasure is not secure would only add to the humiliation. That is one explanation. There is a darker possibility. As a Russian proverb says, "The fish rots from the head down."

BERND SCHMIDBAUER: [through interpreter] I think Russia knows quite well who the men behind the scenes are. We see certain official-like channels that work together. The material doesn't fly away by itself. It doesn't become independent. Radioactive material doesn't roll through the land. People steal it. People transport it. Plus, officials could have been involved in these affairs, so you can't expect that everything would be revealed.

NARRATOR: It is the nightmare scenario, the scenario which most frightens the West, that nuclear material -- lots of it -- could be moved out of Russia if high-level, corrupt insiders are involved.

Gen. GENNADY YEVSTAFIEV, Russian Foreign Intelligence: What do you mean by "collusion at the top"?

NARRATOR: General Gennady Yevstafiev of the Foreign Intelligence Service was the only official who would even talk about the possibility.

Gen. GENNADY YEVSTAFIEV: That's impossible. That's impossible.

INTERVIEWER: And why?

Gen. GENNADY YEVSTAFIEV: Because it is a very sophisticated structure of producing very fine exported-- exporting and some licensing and so on. Hundreds of people involved. I can't believe that. I can't believe that.

NARRATOR: Moscow is silent. And so we are left with the frightening possibility that other nuclear material might have been stolen, as well. We don't know what we don't know.

EPILOGUE: In Washington, too, we wanted to ask questions about the apparent Russian reluctance to prosecute nuclear theft. We wrote letters asking to speak to the State Department, the directors of the FBI and the CIA and Vice President Gore. Each of them declined.

In Russia less than three weeks ago, the head of one of the nuclear weapons labs shot and killed himself, apparently in despair that his workers had not been paid in six months. The U.S. assistance in these places is a race against time.

FRANK von HIPPEL: The nightmare scenario is that there is a breakdown in the security of one of these facilities and that several bombs' worth of material is stolen and it's not recaptured. It just disappears into the underground world.

NARRATOR: On the morning after the first act of nuclear terrorism, what will Russia and the United States wish they had done?

DAVID KAY: I would have no confidence that we're going to succeed at this, which is not to say I don't think we should try. Actually, I think we should try harder. But ultimately, you have to realize you'd better spend some of your time worrying about consequence management of when it fails because we're not worried about a problem for 1996 or 1997. This is a problem well into the 21st century that we're going to have to struggle with. That's why it's extremely important to stop the material before it moves, not try to detect it after it is gone.

ANNOUNCER: If you're still curious about the nuclear smuggling threat, visit FRONTLINE's Web site at WWW.PBS.ORG for more of our investigation. There's an interactive map of Russia's vast nuclear complex, FAQs such as "What does it take to make a bomb?" an extensive Web guide to tracking nuclear proliferation and lots more. Then let us know what you think at WWW.PBS.ORG.

And now your letters, this time about "Navy Blues." Here are some excerpts.

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ANNOUNCER: Many of you voiced strong feelings about Rebecca Hansen who claimed the Navy flunked her out of flight training school because she filed sexual harassment charges.

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NARRATOR: ["Secret Daughter"] Mom wanted to be an actress. Dad was a star no one remembers. My family's story isn't like most. Or perhaps it is. It's about love that doesn't always fit the mold. We've all got secrets. My mother's just happens to be me.

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