One Point Safe by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn


One Point Safe, a book written by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn and the inspiration behind the recent Hollywood film The Peacemaker, examines the threat posed by the loss or theft of nuclear weapons and materials from the former Soviet Union. Based on a number of personal interviews and periodical references, the Cockburns cite a number of instances in which nuclear weapons and materials from Russian nuclear facilities have been stolen and illicitly smuggled. For instance, on 27 November 1993 Dmitry Tikhomirov, a specialist in nuclear fuel rods onboard Russian nuclear refueling maintenance ships, along with former Russian navy captains Alexei Tikhomirov and Oleg Baranov, stole nine pounds of weapons-usable uranium from a storage site in Murmansk, Russia. Reportedly, one of the perpetrators obtained the uranium, enriched to 20 percent, by simply climbing through a hole in the compound's fence and, with the use of a hacksaw, breaking the padlock on the storage shed. There were no guards present and the alarm system was too corroded to function properly. The perpetrator then broke the fuel assembly rod with the hacksaw, removed the uranium, and safely escaped. The uranium was subsequently stored in Baranov's garage, where it remained hidden for months. Russian authorities finally discovered the uranium after one of the perpetrators tried to persuade another individual to help sell the uranium. The individual reported the thieves to the police, and the uranium was subsequently recovered. Following the criminal trial, one of the perpetrators was sentenced to three to five years in prison, another to three years in prison, and the third was granted amnesty and discharged from the Russian military. According to the chief criminal investigator Mikhail Kulik, members of Russian organized crime desired the uranium in order to extract uranium dust for use as an assassination weapon. Kulik also said, 'According to my data, organized crime groups have become more active in trying to obtain large consignments of radioactive material from the Northern Fleet. They contact the staff, study weak points of the system and the possibilities of large-scale thefts.'

Another instance of nuclear theft recorded by the Cockburns occurred in November 1993 at Zlatoust-36, a Russian nuclear weapons plant in the Ural Mountains. Reportedly, two plant workers drove out of the plant in a truck loaded with two nuclear warheads. The truck was not inspected on its way out. Three days later, the plant discovered that the nuclear warheads had been stolen, identified the perpetrators, and recovered the warheads from the workers' garage. The workers were then arrested and jailed. The incident, however, was officially denied by Yevgeni Maslin, head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Twelfth Main Directorate.

The year 1994 witnessed a number of nuclear smuggling incidents. In Hungary, border guards discovered a fruit jar of uranium bound for Austria. Police in Bulgaria discovered capsules of radioactive material on board a bus headed for Turkey. An Azeri national was arrested in Turkey for peddling 750 grams of enriched uranium. In Estonia, police discovered three kilograms of U-238 hidden underneath a man's garage. In June 1994, Russian police in St. Petersburg arrested three Russians for possession of almost nine pounds of highly enriched uranium. Turkish police arrested seven Turks in July 1994 for what they claimed was possession of 12 kg of 'weapons-grade' plutonium. Finally, in October 1994 Russian police arrested 12 'members of a criminal gang' for possession of U-235.

The Cockburns also made mention of Chechen separatist leader Jokhar Dudayev's claim to have obtained two Russian tactical nuclear weapons. According to the Cockburns, Dudayev threatened to pass one of the nuclear weapons to Libyan President Mumar Qaddafi if the United States did not recognize Chechnya as an independent country. Dudayev reportedly offered to allow an American team of technical experts to inspect the weapons. The United States secretly informed Russia of the mission and sent a team of undercover operatives, including a technical weapons specialist, to Chechnya to verify Dudayev's claims. The Chechens, however, never showed the weapons to the Americans, claiming that they had been moved around. The Americans finally left without having seen any evidence of a Chechen nuclear weapon.

The Cockburns also reported on the 1993 seizure of nearly four tons of beryllium from a bank vault in Lithuania (beryllium is a dual-use nuclear material). The beryllium had come from a Russian nuclear research institute in Obninsk (IPPE). Reportedly, a businessman from Yekaterinburg with links to the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) had placed an order for the beryllium using Minatom letterhead. With financial backing from an organization with ties to Russian organized crime called 'The Central Group,' export licenses were obtained to ship the beryllium from Russia to Lithuania in June 1992. In Lithuania, the beryllium was stored in a bank vault. An obscure company in Zurich reportedly offered to purchase the beryllium for $24 million--ten times its market value. Authorities discovered the beryllium, however, before the deal transpired. Though the intended buyer has not yet been clearly identified, CIA officials suspect that one company intimately involved in the transaction was Nordex, a company with close connections to the Russian government and notorious for involvement in arms and narcotics trafficking.

Finally, the Cockburns reported the 1995 discovery of eight tons of zirconium in a warehouse in Queens, NY by U.S. Customs agents (zirconium is a dual-use nuclear material). Police arrested three Greek Americans in the incident, one of which owned an export-import business with offices in Moscow, and charged them with attempting to illegally export the zirconium to Iraq. According to the Customs agents posing as Iraqi buyers, the zirconium was stolen from military stockpiles in Dneprodzerzhinsk, Ukraine, sold on the black market, and shipped through Germany to the United States. One Customs agent said that the importer revealed that he had connections with a Russian general and parties in Chechnya. According to Customs, the suspects knew that the zirconium was to be used in the creation of an Iraqi nuclear weapon.

Abstract Number:  19970445
Headline:  One Point Safe by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn
Date:  1997
Bibliography:  New York: Doubleday
Author:  Andrew and Leslie Cockburn
Material:  nuclear materials

January 1, 1997

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 at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2018.