Neutron Weapon from Underground


In St. Petersburg on 13 July 1999, the Northwest Regional Administration for Combating Organized Crime and the St. Petersburg Administration of the Federal Security Service arrested five men who tried to sell 5g of californium-252 for $50,000 and about 17kg of mercury for $11,000.[1,2,3,4,5,6]  A year after a St. Petersburg based criminal group approached 50 year-old Senior Machinist and Decontamination Specialist Yevgeniy Balan in Murmansk about helping them procure californium-252, Balan took advantage of his responsibility for removing spent nuclear components from the nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya.  In September 1998, he shipped an empty container to the Atomflot storage facility, and carried 5g of californium-252 off the Rossiya.[1,2]  Balan and his accomplice, 43 year-old Nikolay Yefimovich, a radiation control technician aboard the service ship Imandra, packed the californium-252 inside a container filled with paraffin, which they then placed within a canister of water.[1]  Although the initial $100,000 offer from the criminal group fell through, Balan and Yefimovich headed to St. Petersburg with the californium-252 and the mercury,[1,2,3] which also came directly from the icebreaker,[6] in search of another buyer in July 1999.  Authorities there arrested the two men and three others, including Balan's 25 year-old son.[1,2,3]

Unlike californium-251, a weapons-grade fissile material with a bare sphere critical mass of 9kg, californium-252 is not weapons-usable. Californium-252, a strong emitter of neutron radiation, is used to start up nuclear reactors, but it can also be utilized to poison or murder because of its high penetrating capacity (three to 10 times more dangerous than gamma radiation).[1,5]  Although Balan and Yefimovich handled the material carefully, reports indicated that it nevertheless emitted radiation 350 times higher than the maximum permissible level.[1]  Californium-252, produced at the All-Russian Scientific and Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (SRIAR) in Dmitrovgrad, is usually stored on board the Imandra in 200-kg containers.  The material is transferred onto the icebreaker in a bucket-sized container, which can be carried by one person.  Once spent, the californium-252 is transferred from the icebreaker to the Atomflot storage facility.[5]  Authorities sent the confiscated californium-252 to the V.G. Khlopin Radium Institute Scientific Production Association for evaluation.[1]  The crime of stealing radioactive materials falls under Article 221, Part 2 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code and is punishable by five to 10 years in prison.[1,2,3,4]

Since 1996, the United States and Russia, as part of the US Department of Energy's MPC&A Task Force program, have cooperated on upgrading physical protection of the icebreaker fleet's fresh fuel (HEU) stored on board the Imandra, the ship on which Yefimovich worked. (For more information on the upgrades, please see the US DOE MPC&A program reports from 1997 and 1998 in the full-text document section.)  A source at the Murmansk Shipping Company stated that it has accounted for all the material aboard Imandra.[5]  Although the theft from the Rossiya involved non-weapons-usable material, it nonetheless validates the insider theory, which posits that an employee working with the material, such as Balan, may be best positioned and more likely to divert that material. (For further information about the Imandra and the Rossiya please see the Russia: Naval Nuclear Reactors: Civilian-Use Naval Reactors section of the NIS Profiles database.)

Abstract Number:  19990670
Headline:  Neutron Weapon from Underground
Date:  15 July 1999
Bibliography: Segodnya online edition, 15 July 1999,
Author:  Neytronnoye oruzhiye iz pod poly [Neutron Weapon from Underground]
Orig. Src.:  Vadim Nesvizhskiy
Material:  Radioactive Isotopes

[1] Andrey Tsyganov, 'Moryaki torgovali izotopami s ledokola,' Kommersant, online edition,, 15 July 1999.
[2] Vasiliy Belousov, ITAR-TASS, 15 July 1999; in 'Russia Arrests Men for Stealing Fissile Substances,' FBIS Document FTS19990715000403.
[3] 'An Attempt in St. Petersburg to Sell a Radioactive Substance That Can Kill in a Few Days,' InternetGazeta.Ru, 14 July 1999; in 'Two Arrested With Radioactive Materials From Murmansk Facil,' FBIS Document FTS19990719001940.
[4] Kudrik, Igor, 'Nuclear icebreakers base robbed,' Bellona Foundation web site,
[5] Yuriy Vershov and Vadim Tyagniryadno, 'Biznes na neytronakh,' VremyaMN, online edition, No. 125, 15 July 1999.

July 15, 1999

This article is part of a collection examining reported incidents of nuclear or radioactive materials trafficking in or originating from the Newly Independent States.

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2016.