WASHINGTON — A scientist and his wife were arrested and indicted on charges of trying to help make a nuclear bomb for Venezuela, the Justice Department announced Friday.
Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, 75, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina, and Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, 67, a U.S. citizen, were indicted on Thursday by a federal grand jury.
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Both had worked as contractors at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Justice Department said in a statement. The investigation was first made public last October.
If convicted of all 22 charges in the indictment, the defendants face a potential sentence of life in prison, the department said.
The U.S. stated that an undercover officer posing as an agent of the Venezuelan government had cultivated ties with the couple over recent years
"The indictment does not allege that the government of Venezuela or anyone acting on its behalf sought or was passed any classified information, nor does it charge any Venezuelan government officials or anyone acting on their behalf with wrongdoing," the department stated. "Further, the indictment does not charge any individuals currently working at LANL with wrongdoing."
Mascheroni allegedly told the undercover officer in March 2008 that he could help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb within 10 years and that he proposed Venezuela use a secret, underground nuclear reactor to produce and enrich plutonium, as well as an open, above-ground reactor to produce nuclear energy.
Mascheroni, a Ph.D. physicist, worked at Los Alamos from 1979 to 1988 and held a security clearance that allowed him access to certain classified information, including "Restricted Data."
His wife worked at Los Alamos between 1981 and 2010 as a technical writer/editor, the Justice Department said.
Mascheroni allegedly asked the undercover officer about obtaining Venezuelan citizenship and described how he expected to be paid $793,000 for his work.
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In an interview last year with The Associated Press, Mascheroni said that the U.S. government was wrongly targeting him. His home was searched last October and the FBI seized computers, letters, photographs, books and cell phones.
At the time, Mascheroni said he had approached Venezuela after the United States rejected his theories that a hydrogen-fluoride laser could produce nuclear energy.
Mascheroni has said he thought the Venezuelan government wanted him to produce a study on how to build a nuclear weapons program. In return, he asked for $800,000, which he said he planned to use for his scientific research on nuclear fusion in hopes of persuading Congress to take a look at his theories.
Mascheroni has said that in 2008 he gave a computer disk with unclassified information to a man claiming to represent Venezuela. He was paid $20,000, but never spent the money and it was recovered by the FBI during their search.
The $20,000 in cash was left in a drop box at the Albuquerque airport, Mascheroni told AP.
In July 2008, Mascheroni said he received a formal request via e-mail from his Venezuelan contact to write a study for how to build a nuclear weapons program.
Mascheroni told AP that he finished the study in November 2008 and, following directions, placed a CD containing only unclassified information available on the Internet — which he already had provided to congressional staffers — inside a post office box at the Albuquerque airport.
Later, he told AP, he received an e-mail telling him to return to the same post office box where he found a note that said there was $20,000 in $100 bills inside an envelope.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.