For 48 hours, the two Russians and their Belarussian accomplice holed up in the dreary border town of Brest, waiting for two contacts from Poland to show up. To kill time and the autumn chill, the trio opened a bottle of vodka and began a round-the-clock drinking party.
When the Poles arrived in the city of 238,000 in western Belarus, the Russians produced the lead capsule they had stolen from a top-secret installation 1,200 miles to the east. The Poles examined it. Police, tipped in advance, then swooped down on the apartment to block the sale of illegal contraband--5 1/2 pounds of uranium.
"We caught them in the middle of the transaction," Vasily S. Kapitan, chief of investigations in the Belarus state prosecutor's office, said proudly.
The contraband--uranium oxide, a dark powder commonly formed into aspirin-sized pellets to fuel Soviet-made civilian power reactors--was meant to be smuggled into Poland for resale. Belarussian experts found that the material was not potent enough for use in a nuclear weapon.
But the Brest deal was just one incident in the saga of a defunct superpower that, because of economic hardships and collapsing authority, is well on the way to becoming a genuine atomic bazaar.
In the jargon of international security, the problem is broadly known as "loose nukes." Raw and processed uranium, the technology to transmute fissionable material for military ends and the knowledge that created the Soviet nuclear arsenal--they are all now for sale or often subject to safeguards that many find dangerously flimsy.
Russia's economic bust means some top-grade scientists are now paid as little as $12 a month. Little wonder, then, that some try to do better: Security Minister Viktor P. Barannikov disclosed this month that 64 experts on building nuclear-capable ICBMs were stopped before they could illegally fly to North Korea.
Russian officials, including Alexander F. Mokhov, head of internal security at the Atomic Energy Ministry, deny that a nuclear "brain drain" is occurring.
But according to Security Ministry sources, some scientists nabbed as they awaited a flight at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-2 airport had worked at the capital's I. V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy and key facilities in Russia's nuclear-weapons establishment, Arzamas 16 and Tomsk 7.
The scale and diversity of the proliferation problems triggered by the Soviet breakup are so immense they will inevitably be a major concern of the incoming Clinton Administration. To cut the risks, Congress, prodded by Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), has allotted $800 million to help destroy Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons stocks and bar their proliferation.
But a series of interviews with Russian nuclear experts, and the uncovering of facts known previously only to a small circle of specialists here, indicates that the potential for a significant leak is still great.
Take, for example, the Mayak Chemical Works near Chelyabinsk, where used fuel rods from nuclear power reactors are chopped up and doused with concentrated nitric acid to extract plutonium, the element used for the primary charge in thermonuclear bombs.
In 1992, 120 metric tons of fuel were reprocessed. At a symposium this month, Mayak chief engineer Yevgeny G. Dzekun admitted that due to uncertainties in factory calculations, up to 33 pounds of extracted plutonium--enough to make at least one crude fission weapon--could vanish every three months from the plant without managers being the wiser.
"For now, the embezzlement of uranium and plutonium from our installation is out of the question," Dzekun asserted. "But if the situation continues the way it is, who knows what a person without conscience might do? Today, everybody wants to earn more money."
The potential for mayhem seems as large as the Soviet Union was. In the Arctic port of Murmansk, a single carload of police escorts fresh uranium fuel as it is lugged by specially designed vehicle from a rail depot to the naval base. In Ukraine, proliferation problems have come from the military itself: four servicemen were detained after containers of radioactive strontium-90 were stolen from a former Soviet army base this fall.
After visiting seven countries of the former Soviet Union last month to assess nuclear security problems, Nunn and Lugar returned to the United States voicing concern.
"Strategic nuclear weapons are now situated in four new countries (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus), and each . . . faces severe internal strains," they said. "There is also the growing risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear technology and materials, and nuclear know-how."
But there is a rival school of thought that contends the proliferation dangers of the Soviet meltdown are intentionally overstated.
According to the doubters, alarmist rhetoric benefits everybody with a stake: the Russians sweat technical assistance out of a worried world, foreign nuclear firms fill their order books, American politicians pose as statesmen and the Pentagon gets to keep its costly weaponry.
"They need to tell us the situation is so bad that they get their $400 (now $800) million, but not to tell us it's so bad that we freak," said one skeptic, William Arkin, director of military research for Greenpeace International.
The doubters point out that there have been no proven diversions of bomb-grade plutonium-239 or uranium-235 enriched to 90% or more; there have been no lost technologies for gaseous diffusion or centrifuging for isotope enrichment--processes that proved to be the missing link in Iraq's nuclear program.
"All big leaks that might have occurred were stopped in time," Gennady M. Yevstafiyev, an official in Russia's Foreign Security Service, contends.
But the administration of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is sufficiently worried about proliferation to have created a new department in the foreign intelligence service, headed by Yevstafiyev himself, to keep an eye on nuclear and chemical assets in the former Soviet Union and other nations.
Last Monday, criminal legislation forbidding the export of raw materials, hardware or services that would help build an atom bomb cleared its first hurdle in Russia's legislature with approval by the Presidium. Violators could get 10 years in prison.
In one of his first acts as Russia's new prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin has also asked Yeltsin to subject more than 200 dual-use items to strict export controls, including pulse lasers, ultra-sensitive detonators and other equipment and processes used for nuclear purposes.
But Russia, motherland to the lion's share of Soviet nuclear-weapons technology and the Kremlin's thermonuclear arsenal, is far from constituting the only potential "loose nukes" source. As Nunn and Lugar noted, where the Soviet monolith stood, there are now four nations with nuclear weapons, even if ultimate control over them lies with Yeltsin.
Five new nations have commercial reactors, seven boast uranium mining and milling capabilities and five have nuclear research centers, William C. Potter and Eve E. Cohen conclude, in a report for the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Most of these facilities present no risk. A bomb made from unenriched uranium ore mined in Tajikistan would have to be half the size of the Earth to reach critical mass, according to physicists. But Kazakhstan boasts a fast-breeder reactor, at Aktau, which could produce enough plutonium in a year for a score of nuclear bombs.
Then, there is Ukraine, which U.S. intelligence officials now conclude is more likely than ever to renege on pledges to relinquish the estimated 1,656 Soviet warheads on its territory, and which is dragging its feet on ratifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
At Dneprodzerzhnisk, downstream from Kiev, there is a complex of chemical plants which manufacture uranium oxide, heavy water, zirconium, hafnium and ion-exchange resins--all substances useful for nuclear weapons production.
What happened in Brest last Oct. 17 is a good indicator of the "loose nukes" problem. The arrested Russians turned out to hail from Glazov, home to a closed military enterprise, the Chepetsky Mechanical Factory.
Tracing the uranium back to the Volga basin town, police uncovered a gang of nuclear smugglers and arrested 11 people. They recovered more than 200 pounds of stolen, but unenriched uranium, said Victor I. Yefimenko of the Russian state prosecutor's office. As of last week, Russian authorities didn't know how much uranium had been taken. And they were investigating another serious incident--the theft from a scientific facility in Podolsk near Moscow of 3.3 pounds of uranium that Mokhov said was "highly enriched," without providing specifics.
Disturbingly, both jobs were by insiders, Mokhov said. "The thefts were carried out by people directly linked to the technical processes, who know them superbly. They knew how to steal, bit by tiny bit, so it cannot be detected."
Tougher measures, Russian officials claim, are in place to protect bomb-grade isotopes, supersensitive technology and the estimated 27,000 Soviet warheads themselves.
But the disorder endemic to the former Soviet Union is so great that some experts doubt any security steps are foolproof.
"The alarming news is that this (the Brest deal) was the third or fourth, and two or three capsules had already made their way across the border," said Kapitan, giving the first official confirmation of nuclear material leaks from the former Soviet Union.
Plenty has already escaped from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, though not yet the doomsday items that frighten experts. In the year now ending, German investigators uncovered more than 100 cases involving the illegal import of nuclear materials, from lightly enriched fuel pellets to "yellow cake," a low-grade nuclear fuel product freely available on world markets for $8.25 a pound.
In the view of Marvin Miller, of the nuclear engineering department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the surge of such goods on the European black market points out the weakness of Soviet-style security arrangements. The Russians were heavy on building fences, Miller says, but lax in devising inventory controls.
The concentric rings of barbed wire, alarm systems and Interior Ministry troops that ring key installations like Mayak (also known as Chelyabinsk 65), Tomsk 7 or Sverdlovsk 45 may have been enough to keep out the CIA. But they don't protect employees from the twin shocks of the post-Soviet era: a loss of coddled professional status and the opportunity to compensate by stealing.
In October, 1991, two Mayak workers were arrested as they tried to drive off with an irradiated seven-ounce platinum crucible. Chelyabinsk security police said it was so radioactive that in a single hour, it emitted the radiation dose considered safe for a person over one year. What is worse, the officials added, was that the thieves had sold other pieces of purloined plutonium to local dentists. The silvery metal, they said, was reworked into dental crowns for patients unaware of its dangerous origin.
But the proliferation problem is bigger than just free-lance thievery. Strapped for hard-currency revenue, Russia intends to get deeper into the international trade in nuclear power stations and is willing to consider customers the United States finds unsavory.
In one controversial deal, Moscow has an agreement in principle to start building two pressurized-water VVER-440 power reactors next year in Iran--a deal vigorously opposed by the United States because of suspicions that the Tehran government is attempting to build an atomic bomb.
"Any country that can run a nuclear reactor is able to make enriched or purified uranium (for weapons use)," explains Frank Barnaby, a nuclear-weapons expert based in London.
Despite American objections, a formal contract for the reactors' construction is expected "within days," said Georgy A. Kaurov, chief of public relations for Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry. The Russians say the real American objections to the deal are commercial, not military.
Iran was also the center of the year's most sensational "loose nuke" report, an illustration of how prevalent such canards have been. The Islamic republic bought three nuclear bombs from Kazakhstan for over $150 million, the headline-grabbing story went. But no proof ever surfaced.
One field where the United States has been especially active is in trying to tie former Soviet nuclear scientists to their workplace. Communist-era travel restrictions remain in force for more than 100,000 members of the nuclear-weapons labor force who live in 10 closed cities throughout Russia; they are supposed to get approval from state security agents before they leave.
In June, Col. Anatoly Samkov, head of Krasnoyarsk region's state security agency, reported that an "Asian country" tried to recruit at the Krasnoyarsk 26 and 45 facilities. That country, the newspaper Izvestia specified, was China, which supposedly wanted help in modernizing a uranium enrichment plant.
One Kurchatov Institute employee has said two colleagues were offered $2,000 a month by Libya to work at the Tajura Nuclear Center, which the Russians say houses a five-megawatt reactor that has no military use. Even former Soviet republics may now be getting into the act: Two Russian physicists have reported receiving feelers about employment from Ukraine.
On Nov. 27, the ribbon was cut on the $75-million centerpiece in an to keep the former bomb builders at home: the International Scientific and Technical Center, housed in a Moscow institute that once made devices to measure the wallop of nuclear explosions.
The American government contributed $25 million and wants the money to pay salaries to scientists formerly employed making "weapons of mass destruction" so they can do civilian research. A multinational board of directors will pass judgment on competing proposals for experiments.
Sergei L. Loiko, of The Times' Moscow Bureau, Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Berlin and Moscow free-lance journalist Kirill Belyanikov contributed to this report.