Buying Weapons Grade Plutonium 239­ on the Black Market

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Buying Weapons Grade Plutonium 239­ on the Black Market

Extracted from Chapter 7, When Push Comes To Shove

Roger Cook reported for BBC Radio 4's 'Checkpoint' programme from 1974 until 1987 when 'The Cook Report' was commissioned from ITV's Central Television which ran until 1997. The final audiences for The Cook Report were around nine-and-a-half million.

'Dangerous Ground, The Inside Story of Britain's Leading Investigative Journalist'

Roger Cook and Howard Foster, Harper Collins, 2000, ISBN 0 00 653108 3 pp. 311-318

For months, there had been occasional newspaper reports, mainly tucked away in the foreign pages, of nuclear material being smuggled out of the former Soviet Union for sale illegally in the West. In just twelve months, the German police had made no fewer than 160 seizures of radioactive chemicals - all of it on its way to, so far, unidentified groups keen to obtain the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The World Trade Center in New York had just been bombed by Moslem extremists. Was it only a matter of time before one of these fanatical organisations got hold of enough plutonium to rig up a small bomb to be detonated in another Western city?

Clive Entwistle and Paul Calverley were on the case. Some friends of Mike Garner worked for Greenpeace. They were in touch with a young Russian journalist who had contacts with the gangs selling weapons-grade plutonium, and much more besides.

Entwistle went to Moscow to meet the reporter - Kyril - to see if he would help. Subject to certain conditions ­that neither he nor his contacts would be filmed or identified in any way, he agreed. He reminded Entwistle that the people we would be dealing with were dangerous and that we had to be very careful. I flew out to Moscow to meet him. He was young and, understandably, nervous. We per­suaded him that we had the expertise and the resources to carry off a 'sting' on his contacts.

The plan was that I would pose as the representative of a Middle Eastern organisation keen to buy Plutonium 239­ the essential ingredient for putting together a small nuclear bomb. Back in Britain, we hired - a consultant nuclear engineer, John Large, to see if it would be possible to make such a weapon. The simple answer was yes. In fact, the prospect of an attack using one had been worrying the experts for some time. It already had a name - a 'dirty bomb' - so called because it would be rudimentary, inefficient but, nonetheless, deadly whether it triggered properly or just dispersed millions of nuclear particles over the immediate, highly-populated area.

John Large built us a replica 'dirty bomb' small enough to fit into a briefcase. It was frightening to click open such ­a commonplace piece of baggage and see the tubular, pre­assembled nuclear unit inside, complete with plutonium core and battery-operated timing and detonation devices.

Another expert told us in interview that a small terrorist group would quite easily be able to. find the necessary components if they were properly funded. In Moscow, we were hoping to prove that he was right.

Mike Garner joined Entwistle and me in Moscow. He and secret filming equipment wizard Alan Harridan had hurriedly created two cameras that were built into clothing, which Garner was to use when meeting the gang. In a series of cloak and dagger meetings at the Slavjanskaya hotel, Kyril helped us to plan our visit to the gang's HQ. He was begin­ning to have second thoughts about what was about to hap­pen, and was only just holding his nerve.

The following morning, Garner and I were joined by Kyril and two heavy-looking characters with bulges under their coats - Kyril's underworld 'contacts' - and we set off in an impressive-looking hire car for one of Moscow's outer suburbs. Eventually we stopped in front of a gloomy, low­-rise, pre-war apartment block in a surprisingly leafy street. Kyril led us to the front door of a scruffy, ground-floor flat and rapped nervously on the frosted glass.

The door opened and a dishevelled man in his thirties waved us quickly inside. He invited us to sit down in a makeshift office, which centred on a rickety desk, bare but for a telephone. Gamer sat down last, making sure he could get a good shot of our host with the camera which was built into the breast pocket of his denim jacket.

The man introduced himself as Gennady. He said that he could obtain most nuclear materials from a variety of sources. He pointed to the telephone. We just had to tell him what we needed and he would make the call to his 'business partner', who would arrange delivery. I told him that we wanted twenty-five kilograms of plutonium for our Middle Eastern clients. Gennady didn't bat an eyelid. He picked up the receiver and dialled his friend. They spoke in Russian for a minute, then Gennady put the phone down and talked to Kyril. The journalist translated that weapons grade plutonium would cost $15 million dollars a kilo but that for a large order such as we were placing; Gennady was prepared to close the deal for $200 million dollars. Had we wanted a uranium/plutonium mixture, we could have had it straight away. As it was, pure plutonium would take a little while to obtain.

He had uranium and plutonium straightaway? I asked.

Gennady smiled and told us to stay where we were. He walked over to a cupboard under his staircase. He reached inside and, with a grimace, hauled something into the room - a lead-covered container about two feet high. Suddenly Gamer dropped forward onto his knees. My God, I thought. 'He's been irradiated. In fact, he was just trying to film the lettering and codes stamped on the outside of the canister with his secret camera, while appearing to want to check out the details for his own professional satisfaction.

Before we left, Gennady gave us a small sample of nuclear material from the container so that 'our people' could have it tested to prove he could deliver what we wanted. I hoped to God that the small container he'd given us was leakproof. Everything seemed so ramshackle and amateur - a scruffy man in a cardigan operating from a shabby flat with weapons-grade nuclear material hidden under his stairs. My . blood ran cold. We left Gennady with a handshake and agreed that we would come back to him as soon as we had spoken to our clients in the Middle East.

After the meeting, it was clear that Kyril wasn't happy with what we were doing. It was just about the last time we saw him - and I can't say that I blamed him. We were all very nervous. In his absence, however, we were without an interpreter for our covert meetings with Gennady. We could hardly approach one of the translation agencies and ask for someone to come and tell us when the Mafia man was planning to deliver our plutonium.

In the meantime, our sample had been taken to the Atomic Energy Ministry laboratories in central Moscow. Screened by residential developments, the laboratories were housed in a series of low, cream-painted buildings which, on the inside, reminded me of Dr Who's Tardis. A worried ­looking scientist opened the sample with his hands encased in heavy silver gloves built into the side of a radiation-proof cabinet. He emptied the contents of the phial into a glass dish, and we filmed him testing it.

Sure enough, it was exactly what Gennady had said it was. We interviewed a Ministry spokesman. It was obvious that he knew that his country was haemorrhaging nuclear material through the Russian Mafia, but he put a brave face on things and vowed that he would do everything he could to stop it.

Back in Birmingham, programme manager Pat Harris had had a brainwave. Central had just finished filming one of its most successful dramas - 'Sharpe', starring Sean Bean as the swashbuckling soldier hero of the Napoleonic Wars - in Eastern Europe. An English woman who spoke fluent Russian had been working on the production as an interpreter and she was coming back to the UK via Moscow. Would she help?

Surprisingly, given that I had to tell her exactly what we were involved in, she agreed and cheerfully set off with us for our second visit to Gennady. This time, he had brought in his partner, Ilya.

They had had an idea. If, as we said, we wanted the plutonium so that we could make a nuclear warhead, why not just buy one ready-made? They had an SS 20 ballistic missile they could provide for us - what did we think?

As our interpreter translated, I felt a sense of unreality wash over me, as I had the first time I had met Gennady. f we were finding it so easy to obtain these things, what he hell was there to stop a genuine terrorist organisation with real money behind it from doing exactly the same?

I obviously wasn't looking keen on the idea, because Gen­nady and Ilya were now outlining to our interpreter how the original order of weapons-grade plutonium was to be smuggled out to us. It would be coming through Vilnius in Lithuania. When would we like delivery? And would I please take the details of how we should make the payment to their company? Fine, fine. We took down the details and arranged to talk later. We had all the evidence we needed that the fissile material for our 'dirty bomb' could be found here in Moscow. We flew back to Britain to prepare for the final stage of the programme.

We had decided to take our dummy 'dirty bomb' to the United. States. The totally reasonable thinking was that the bomb set off by the Moslem extremists at the World Trade Center could so easily have contained nuclear material. If not this time, maybe next time. We wanted to ask the auth­orities there if they had contemplated such a threat and, if so, what plans they had to deal with it.

We wanted to carry out our plan sensibly and without causing any panic, so we informed both British and US Customs exactly what we were doing. The briefcase was thoroughly examined at Heathrow Airport and again when we arrived in New York.

Understandably, perhaps, the New York authorities ­from the Mayor's office to the civil defence department ­refused to meet us.. The story of what we had brought with us and our exploits in Moscow were picked up by New York radio stations.

In Washington, however, I interviewed Bob Kupperman, a former US National Security Adviser who looked at the briefcase's contents and said, 'Oh, my God. My worst night­mare is coming true!' A chilling comment from the man who was once the chief scientist for the American side in the SALT Two disarmament talks. He had warned several times that the ready availability of small amounts of nuclear material on the black market would ultimately give the ter­rorists the power they had wanted for so long.

Here, in theory, was a bomb small enough to fit into a briefcase but big enough to obliterate Manhattan.

When news of our visit to New York was picked up in Britain, we were lambasted by the Sun, which accused me of being 'irresponsible and naive' for trying to 'sneak' the 'dirty bomb' into the US with me. This really annoyed me. We had moved heaven and earth to avoid scaring people. We had informed all the relevant authorities in Britain and the USA and, after all, we were making a very valid point, given our Russian findings.

I insisted that Central complained to Kelvin MacKenzie, then the editor of the Sun. Our press department advised against it. 'If you cross the Sun, they'll never give you pub­licity again - not good publicity anyway,' they warned.

I insisted, however, and, a couple of weeks later, an apol­ogy appeared in the paper, printed as prominently as the original, condemnatory article. And, despite the fears of the Central Television press department, when we broadcast the first programme about the terrorist activities of Martin McGuinness a few weeks after that, the Sun described me as a 'national hero'. This was one 'national hero' who was ready to lie down and sleep for a year.

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