msnbc.com news services
updated 11/2/2004 1:02:22 PM ET 2004-11-02T18:02:22

A Russian atomic scientist surrendered eight containers filled with arms-grade nuclear material to police on Tuesday after keeping it in his garage for eight years, Russian media reported. Now he finds himself facing possible criminal charges.

Leonid Grigorov found the 400 grams (14 ounces) of plutonium-238 in a heap of rubbish at his laboratory near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan, Itar-Tass news agency said.

Interfax news agency said the lab, looted after the Soviet collapse in 1991, was eventually closed and deserted.

Grigorov said he had written to authorities asking them to secure the material, which theoretically could be used to make a “dirty bomb.” But when his letters went unanswered, he placed the plutonium in a lead-lined box and stored it in his garage.

He handed it in to local police after a newspaper offered a reward to anyone who surrendered weapons.

Hidden to avoid ‘tragic consequences’
“As an expert, I knew that I had to (hide it) to avoid tragic consequences,” Grigorov was quoted as saying.

But instead of giving him a prize, police opened a criminal investigation against Grigorov on charges of illegal possession of radioactive materials.

Plutonium-238 is normally used to generate heat but some experts believe that, if mixed with other materials, it could be used in a nuclear explosive device. It is much more radioactive than plutonium-239, a radio-isotope normally used in atomic bombs.

But Nikolai Shingaryov, a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency, said Tuesday that that plutonium-238 is widely used in industries but could not be used to build an atomic bomb

Russia, with its huge nuclear arsenal, is under pressure to prevent dangerous atomic material from falling into the hands of extremists after the Soviet collapse left many nuclear facilities under-protected.

There is also speculation that individual nuclear scientists, underpaid since the Soviet collapse, may be secretly transferring sensitive technology to what Washington calls “rogue” states for cash. Russia denies that is happening.

Second discovery reported
In a separate incident, 97 pounds of radioactive scrap metal was discovered in Chelaybinsk, Tass reported on Tuesday.

The region is heavily polluted with radioactive material from its nuclear reactor and plants producing plutonium for atomic bombs.

The local Mayak nuclear complex dumped approximately 2.68 billion cubic feet) of highly radioactive waste into a river between 1949 and 1956 and suffered an explosion in 1957, showering radiation over the southern Urals mountain region.

Tass said the discovery was the second such find in a week, although it did not say how big the earlier find was.

Security at hundreds of Russian nuclear sites became a big issue for the West after this year’s discovery of a global nuclear black market run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan that supplied technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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