July 2001

Questioning of Alleged Plutonium Smuggler Begins

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 17 July 2001
By Alfred Behr

[Posted 18/07/2001]

Authorities Wonder What Motive Could Have Been in Bizarre, Perhaps One-of-a-Kind Crime.

STUTTGART. A 47-year-old worker who six months ago allegedly smuggled plutonium out of an unused nuclear reprocessing plant in Karlsruhe was brought before a judge on Tuesday.

How the man, a locksmith working at the plant, was able to bring a bottle of radioactive "nuclear soup" and radioactive cloths out of the plant despite security controls has since become public knowledge: According to officials, he passed several exit locks and control monitors carrying his dangerous booty from the "pipe tunnel," a highly contaminated area of the plant; he then placed the stolen objects next to the monitors and took them back into his possession, again unnoticed, once he had passed through the locks.

On Tuesday, officials said he demonstrated how he left the plant with the bottle and cloths in his pants pocket. His motive remains unclear, but there is speculation that he wanted to use the hazardous material to blackmail the plant.

The environment minister for the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, Ulrich Müller of the Christian Democratic Union, said on Tuesday it was possible to cause harm with the stolen material, but that doing so would serve absolutely no useful purpose. The alleged offender, who was charged on Tuesday for illegal possession of a radioactive substance, had showed neither skill nor intelligence, he said, which prompted members of Alliance 90_The Greens in the state parliament to ask what would be possible if a presumably more skilled and intelligent employee wanted to smuggle something out.

Mr. Müller said the man had not acted "logically," which was why the deed could not have been predicted, adding that there had never been a known case of this kind either in Germany or abroad before. Mr. Müller also said he did not believe the man's claim that he only wanted to draw attention to the lack of safety precautions.

The former reprocessing plant does not contain weapons-grade plutonium, but only radioactive plutonium dust and highly radioactive liquids. Between 1971 and 1990, 208 tons of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants and test reactors were reprocessed there, resulting in 80,000 liters (21,000 U.S. gallons) of fission product solution, or "nuclear soup," containing 504 kilograms (1,110 pounds) of uranium and 16.5 kilograms of plutonium dissolved in nitric acid. In September 1996, the Baden-Württemberg government decided not to send the highly radioactive liquid waste in 30 Castor containers to be disposed of in Belgium, but to vitrify it on site in Karlsruhe.

The yet-to-be-completed vitrification plant to melt the nuclear waste to glass ingots will cost more than DM400 million ($175 million). The rehabilitation and demolition of the reprocessing plant should be completed by 2009 at a total estimated cost of just under DM3 billion. Merely monitoring the "zero operation" costs some DM130 million each year.

The locksmith reportedly contaminated himself, his girlfriend and her daughter. He was born in Portugal and prospered in Germany when he married a baker's daughter and opened several bakery stores, but he later divorced, lost his money and started working at his brother's company, which is carrying out demolition work at the plant. Last March, a routine annual test established excessive levels of radioactivity in his urine. The plant was only informed of this on June 20 and the test was repeated for control purposes.

Mr. Müller said the long period between the first and second test was "not right."

Back to contents