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Fighting Nuclear Smugglers

Chilling evidence suggesting that nuclear material is being smuggled out of the former Soviet Union for illicit sale on world markets has prompted a new agreement between Germany and Russia for closer cooperation to combat movement of the contraband. In the last four months three such shipments have been intercepted in Germany, the most recent on a Lufthansa flight from Moscow to Munich two weeks ago.

Western scientists who examined that 10.5-ounce cache of plutonium-239 believe it originated in Russia. But Moscow has emphatically denied any official laxity, and in last week’s agreement Germany diplomatically refrained from new finger-pointing.

National pride is clearly very much at issue here, and some in Russia have also hastened to charge that worries over smuggled plutonium have been fabricated to justify Western intrusion into Russian nuclear facilities. But the widespread breakdown in order and controls in Russia and the rise of organized crime, graphically described by Times correspondent Richard Boudreaux last Sunday, indicate that the theft and smuggling of nuclear material represent an all too plausible threat.

In any event there’s no denying that German authorities have intercepted plutonium within their borders. How much smuggled material may have escaped detection is almost too scary to think about.

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Such nuclear-ambitious countries as Iran and Libya are believed to be in the market for plutonium, a laboratory-created element not found in nature. But plutonium’s great toxicity--a small amount could poison a major city’s water supply--makes it a weapon coveted by terrorists as well as by states. Germany and Russia have agreed on closer intelligence cooperation and tighter border controls to try to curb the traffic in plutonium. But Germany isn’t the only entry point for nuclear contraband. Other nations should be enlisted in this grim anti-smuggling effort, for the stakes are literally a matter of life and death.


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