[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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
[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
And did you ever have any close calls?
[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.
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.
[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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
He was, in the end, freed, punished with only three years' probation.
[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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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--
Hibbs was critical of the Germans from the beginning for their
apparent intention to embarrass the Russians.
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.
German intelligence hailed it as a blow against that Mafia, but
the fact remained that the buyer was a cop.
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.
[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?
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.
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
IAN RAY, Nuclear Chemist: Here we have a small
quantity of the powder from this particular find of pure plutonium.
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.
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 was an important clue. The material had not been in the hands
of amateurs. Whoever had stolen it knew what they were doing.
It's been handled by experts. There's no question.
From this unique process, as he showed it to you, you can identify
the place where this process was-- is used.
And in the case of this particular sample, do we now know the
place where that hexagonal--
I know places where these processes have been tried out, yes.
Not in the European Union.
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.
[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.
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.
[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
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.
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 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
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
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.
Most of the accounting, it was by weight only?
And what were the implications of that?
Weight will only give you mass, but it doesn't tell you whether
you're really looking at anything radioactive.
So in theory, someone could substitute the uranium in those rods--
Yes, in theory that could be done.
Before Munich there was no central system to verify how much nuclear
material had been produced here, informally transferred between
departments or stored.
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.
But officially the Ministry of Atomic Energy continued to insist
"No losses of plutonium have been reported at any of our
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.
[subtitles] Good day.
interpreter] He's not here.
[through interpreter] Will he be in?
interpreter] No. He's out of town.
[through interpreter] I'm from the newspaper Izvestia.
interpreter] Izvestia? Oh, God!
[through interpreter] No, what's so terrible? It's a newspaper
just like any other. Do you know about this situation?
interpreter] What can I tell you? I'm quite surprised that a newspaper
is interested in him. What is he, some kind of hero?
[through interpreter] Hero? All of us are heroes. Invisible, of
interpreter] I don't know.
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.
In fact, the rumors sparked a debate among the scientists here.
Could the plutonium have come from their stockpile? Who could
have stolen it?
[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.
There is an unofficial anxiety among the physicists who have long
worked with the deadly material, even when they joke about it.
[holds up picture of a dog] Old security system.
Officially, they are being kept in the dark.
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.
[through interpreter] Absolutely right. You may even have more
information than I do. I don't read the Western press, only what
[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
Any idea of how many tons of material is in there?
ALEXANDER ROUMIANTSEV: The
total weight exceeds 200 tons.
As they said to me there, some of it is attractive to theft because
it's small. It can be carried.
Small, extremely small. You may just put it in your pockets, 96
percent enriched uranium. It's like Italian spaghetti.
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.
This building contains material which is almost by the order of
magnitudes exceeds the dreams of Saddam Hussein.
are rogue states besides Hussein's Iraq known to have nuclear
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--
David Kay led the U.N. team who uncovered Iraq's nuclear program
in the aftermath of the Gulf war.
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.
[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
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.
[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
[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."
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.
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.
[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."
[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.
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.
[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.
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
[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.
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.
[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.
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.
[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
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.
Czech detective Major Jan Rathausky, a newcomer to nuclear crime,
investigated the case.
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
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.
"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
Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through
interpreter] He's a person who is very trusting, very naive, a
special kind of person.
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.
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.
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.
times the story seemed too comic to be real.
Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY: [through
interpreter] He hid them here, in that bush.
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.
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."
Baranov would not tell you who gave him the uranium or where it
Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY:
[through interpreter] No. No. He refused to answer.
And the Russians didn't ask him?
Maj. JAN RATHAUSKY:
[through interpreter] No.
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.
[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
[through interpreter] Excuse me, please. Can we speak with Eduard?
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.
[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
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
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.
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.
It was the same man.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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"?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
the morning after the first act of nuclear terrorism, what will
Russia and the United States wish they had done?
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.
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.
[Wentworth, Wisconsin] Dear FRONTLINE: --the bulk of the
content of "Navy Blues" to be enlightening, I was particularly
horrified by the comment made in regards to Admiral Boorda's suicide.
I think it's a sad day in America when we look at suicide as a
"warrior's death." To glorify his suicide under those
circumstances does a huge disservice to those true warriors who
gave their lives in Vietnam and--
BRIAN ESCH: [Townsend, Massachusetts] Dear
FRONTLINE: I was surprised and delighted by the even-handed coverage
FRONTLINE gave to the Tailhook incident. However, I was saddened
by the decline of a great institution, the U.S. Navy, all in the
interests of political correctness. Brian Esch, Townsend, Massachusetts.
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.
ANTHONY HAAG: [Jasper, Indiana]
Giving this person a forum to tell her unbelievable story is a
disservice to women who have real harassment complaints. Anthony
NANCY COWAN: [Aliso Viejo, California]
Dear FRONTLINE: I was appalled
that Rebecca Hansen believes that she was a champion of women's
rights. She is an abuser of women's rights and an embarrassment
to the cause.
Capt. ROSEMARY MARINER, U.S. Navy: [Alexandria,
Virginia] Dear FRONTLINE: Whatever
our problems, Navy men and women are not at war with one another.
FRONTLINE errs by confusing political, social, cultural warriors
with real warriors and disparages the hundreds of thousands of
Navy men and women who serve together as true professionals in
harm's way every day. Sincerely, Captain Rosemary Mariner, United
States Navy, Alexandria, Virginia.
Let us know what you think about tonight's program by fax [(617)
254-0243], by e-mail [FRONTLINE@PBS.ORG] or by the U.S. mail [DEAR
FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134].
["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.
WRITTEN and PRODUCED
by Sherry Jones
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
STOCK FOOTAGE RESEARCH
Frank Russell Company
Global Source Network
Kyle Hamm, KOCO-TV
NBC News Archives
Russian Independent Television
U.S. Department of Defense
World-wide Television News
POST PRODUCTION SUPERVISOR
POST PRODUCTION PRODUCER
The Caption Center
Lee Ann Donner
SPECIAL PROJECTS ASSISTANT
SENIOR STAFF ASSOCIATE
Anne del Castillo
Valerie E. Opara
DIRECTOR OF ADMINISTRATION
SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
A FRONTLINE coproduction with Washington Media Associates
Tapes and Transcripts ·
©1996 WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION ALL RIGHTS RESERVED