In These Times
January 28, 1992

New black market: Soviet nukes on the loose
By Paul DeRienzo

The discovery by Italian officials of an arms-smuggling ring has spurred concern among security experts over the fate of some of the 27,000 nuclear weapons that belonged to the former Soviet Union. According to the Milan newspaper Corriere Della Sera, an October arrest of seven people in the northern Italian city of Como, near the Swiss border, also netted a small sample of plutonium, the fuel used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

In October, Swiss officials in Zurich had seized 66 pounds of uranium, also potential nuclear weapons fuel. Experts believe the uranium and plutonium are both from the Soviet Union. Newsday quotes an Italian deputy prosecutor, Romano Dolce, as saying that the arrests in both countries are linked to an alarming increase in the smuggling of nuclear material since the August coup in Moscow.

Dolce, in an interview for Italian television, also said that documents seized with the 0.1 milligrams; of plutonium-which was apparently used as a sales sample-provide evidence that nuclear artillery shells have already been sold from a major military base near Irkutsk in the Russian republic.

The same documents reportedly name former agents of the now-dissolved KGB and GRU, the Soviet secret police and the military intelligence agency of the former Soviet army respectively, as involved in the smuggling of nuclear weapons as well as uranium and plutonium. Corriere Della Sera, a respected daily, reports that Soviet battlefield nuclear weapons with a range of between 30 and 60 kilometers, were being offered for sale at $20 million apiece.

Speaking to Italian journalists, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said he fears Soviet nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of "paramilitary groups. " That fear is shared by David Shapiro, media director of the Washington based Business Executives for National Security, a group that advocates more efficient spending of the U.S. defense budget.

Shapiro told In These Times that the sale of the relatively short-range Soviet nuclear weapons does not pose an immediate threat to the continental United States. But, he said, they might become a threat "in Europe, if a separatist community of one kind or another [were to get control of a tactical nuclear weapon], or in a country that’s breaking up, like Yugoslavia, if one faction or another were to get that."

However, Shapiro adds that U.S. government officials believe "the sale of the equipment itself-the nuclear weapons themselves-is less of a problem only in that it’s easier to track them, Much more difficult to track are the people who have the skills either to construct weapons or to separate plutonium [in order to make bomb fuel."

Shapiro points out that the elimination of price controls in the former Soviet Union, now the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), is expected to cause a sharp decline in living standards for Soviet scientists. Some nations and paramilitary groups may take advantage of that, bidding for the services of the estimated 5,000 Soviet-trained nuclear experts. Shapiro says Soviet nuclear scientists are "ripe for the plucking by regimes that are very interested in developing these kinds of weapons of mass destruction."

Vyactieslav Kozanov, a representative of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, told USA Toda ‘ v that agents of the Libyan government have approached Soviet nuclear scientists with job offers to work on non-weapons related projects. Rozanov said no Soviet scientists have yet accepted such offers. But, he added, "it’s possible they would agree to a higher-paying [offer]."

Shapiro says that besides Libya, Iraq is among the countries most often mentioned as potential recipients of Soviet nuclear technology.

Shapiro’s organization is offering a plan to deal with nuclear proliferation in the post-Soviet era. At the heart of the plan would be the establishment of an international fund to offer CIS nuclear experts what Shapiro calls a "right of first refusal." The fund would offer matching grants to scientists who receive offers from would-be nuclear powers. Under the grants, these scientists would pursue peaceful nuclear research.

But Shapiro believes that even with such programs, "the proliferation problem is going to become much, much more acute." Shapiro says the proliferation of Soviet nuclear technology and weapons is "stepping up front and center as probably the major security concern of people worried about the spread of weapons."

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, now signed by more than 130 nations, banned the intentional transfer of nuclear weapons or technology. The treaty was an attempt to limit the club of nuclear nations to the United States, Soviet Union, England, France and China. But in 1974 India, which has not signed the treaty, exploded its own nuclear weapon. Most experts believe that both Israel and South Africa also have nuclear weapons and that several countries, including Pakistan and Brazil, could soon develop such weapons. The breakup of the Soviet Union has also added newly independent Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus as nuclear powers. In theory, strategic weapons capable of reaching the U.S. on those former Soviet territories are under Russian control.

According to Corriere Delta Sera, the Italian government was so unprepared for an increase in the smuggling of nuclear materials that two Italians arrested in Como as part of a uranium-smuggling ring were released because there were no laws to hold them. The paper says the ring was connected to former Soviet intelligence agencies and a former Soviet diplomat. They were bringing samples of nuclear material to representatives of the buyers when the arrests were made. It is unclear who planned to purchase the material

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