Nuclear Materials Stolen From Kamchatka Sub

Military Admits Theft Of Radioactive Metal From Sub

Nonna Chernyakova

Vladivostok News Online

February 4, 2000

Weeks after the theft of radioactive material from a nuclear submarine, Kamchatka military prosecutors have admitted the crime and added that stealing army equipment is a serious problem.

According to Igor Kravchuk, a reporter from Kamchatka's Vesti newspaper, the Pacific Fleet counterespionage division kept the theft secret until January 28, and only under pressure from the reporters have the details of the theft become known.

"At first, they [the military] said it was a decommissioned submarine," Kravchuk said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Only later did they admit it was still an active ship which will be decommissioned later."

On January 7 in the town of Vilyuchinsk-3, formerly known as Rybachy, two sailors sneaked into the nuclear reactor section of a submarine that was waiting to be decommissioned and stole catalysts for igniting the reactor. The materials contained palladium, a popular item for scrap metal dealers, because it is more valuable than gold.

They took nine tubes with a palladium cover, which cost 100,000 rubles ($3,571) each. They broke the safe and took 12 containers for radioactive sources, which looked like golden plates.

The sailors didn't realize that the equipment was radioactive, and they kept the stolen metal under the mattresses of their beds, intending to sell to scrap metal dealers.

Russian Navy commander Vladimir Kuroyedov fired two senior officers from the submarine and 10 other officers and admirals were penalized for negligence.

According to Vesti, the sailors might have created a nuclear explosion on the submarine as they tried to lift some neutralizing grids, but they failed because the lifting device had been welded in place.

However, Alexander Piletsky, deputy head of the press center of the North East Army Group, said in a phone interview Thursday that local mass media have exaggerated the danger. He denied the possibility of an explosion.

"All the nuclear equipment is out of reach [of thieves], so there is no danger for the citizens of Kamchatka or anybody else," Piletsky said.

He added that controlling radioactive sources were stolen.

Viktor Grunin, the Vilyuchinsk military prosecutor, said Wednesday that four people will be charged with military and civilian cries in a case that was launched January 13.

"The equipment itself is not very valuable, and they probably wouldn't even be able to sell it," Grunin said. "They just took whatever."

But he expressed concern about thefts in the army. According to his statistics, the number of thefts in his district grew by 13 percent last year. However, he said that the prosecutors have started paying more attention to it, and that may be why the number of cases appears to be increasing.

Grunin blamed the situation on poverty in both the army and the country at large. But the most immediate cause of thefts is the privatization of scrap metals sales, he said.

"Nowadays, any firm can get a license and start trading scrap metals," Grunin said. "Before, old military equipment was just thrown away. But now there is a demand for it, so people steal metal everywhere."

Yet some of the thefts might be extremely dangerous for the civilians. Vesti reported that in 1993, sailors from the battleship Georgy Kozmin stole more than 600 kilograms of mercury. It was stored on the ship and used in a mini-submarine designed for rescuing the crews of larger subs. The thieves transported a few tanks with mercury out to a nearby city. They hid the other tanks on the ship's lower levels.

The most commonly stolen substances, however, are non-ferrous metals. In 1997, police confiscated 14,960 grams of pure silver from criminals connected with the military. At the same time, the detectives received evidence that Kamchatka prison colonies had been started getting silver supplies for inmate jewelers. Inmate craftsmen were making and selling silver decorations in order to contribute to the prison "treasury," Kravchuk reported.

Last year, Sgt. Maj. Oleg Ponomaryov was sentenced to 3 1/2 years imprisonment for stealing equipment made of copper, weighing about three kilograms, from a diesel submarine of Varshavyanka type, which is the quietest vessel in the world.

Also last year, there were several cases in which sailors stole cassettes made of palladium from nuclear submarines. The cassettes are used for air purification and are very popular among the metal dealers.

"The criminal world of Kamchatka and all of Russia understood a long time ago that the army units are a golden vein for quick profit-making," Vesti reported. "And many people with shoulder-straps trade not only cartridges, guns and explosives; for a long time they have been damaging anti-aircraft and anti-missile stations, battle vehicles, submarines, new and old fighter jets, bombers..."

Kravchuk said some Kamchatka military men have become suspiciously rich: They buy expensive sport utility vehicles and gamble away dachas and apartments in card games.

Piletsky, commenting on the reporter's statement, said tersely, "The problem does exist."