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Poland Taking Steps To Combat Radioactive Smuggling

October 21, 1992

WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ Worried that Poland is becoming a route for radioactive contraband from the former Soviet Union, authorities plan to distribute radiation detectors to border guards.

Smugglers caught recently bringing radioactive substances from former Soviet republics where controls over stocks seem to be breaking down have raised fears not only of the dangerous trade but also of contamination along the way.

Police say a man was arrested Sunday in Terespol, on Poland’s eastern border, with 3.3 pounds of low-radiation uranium in his attic. The uranium, one piece in a lead-lined box that was covered with plastic, apparently came from neighboring Belarus, where three other Poles were apprehended.

A Polish emigre is seriously ill with radiation poisoning in Zurich and may become the first fatality from the smuggling. He apparently, unwittingly, became a courier for two grams of radioactive cesium from Lithuania that he carried out of Poland, at one point in his breastpocket, said David Kyd of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ten Poles and Czechs have been arrested in Germany this month in two seizures of radioactive uranium, cesium and strontium.

Poland is a ″natural staging point″ for the smuggling from the Soviet Union to markets in Switzerland, Germany or Italy, Kyd said Wednesday from Vienna.

So far, there is no evidence of commerce in highly enriched uranium, the type used for nuclear weapons, he said, ″but where there is a little smoke there could be fire some day.″

Polish customs agents were aware that traders were bringing everything from turtles to industrial drills out of the former Soviet Union. But they were caught by surprise when radioactive substances were added to the list.

″We did not believe that people would be so stupid and irresponsible as to take a lethal substance, put it in their pocket and go,″ customs spokeswoman Teresa Urbanowska said Wednesday.

A customs director is preparing to distribute radiation detectors to be worn by agents who inspect cars and the drivers’ documents at Poland’s eastern border with Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, Ms. Urbanowska said.

Sophisticated gate monitors that signal the presence of radioactive substances as cars pass through also are planned, the first at the Ogrodniki crossing on Lithuania’s border.

Neither step will help combat sophisticated operations, where the radioactivity is masked by lead containers. ″That is a different problem, like smuggling drugs,″ Ms. Urbanowska said.

But they will improve on the bulky radiation detectors now at each crossing, brought out of storage only when a smuggling attempt is evident, the spokeswoman said.

″We are bearing in mind, among other things, the health of our officers,″ she said.

The traders apparently mistakenly believe that the uranium is worth a fortune on the black market, but are only vaguely aware of its dangers.

Uranium in natural or concentrated ore forms is available on the open market. At low levels of enrichment, it is only used for reactors for research or energy and has little appeal for international terrorists or countries trying to build a nuclear arsenal.

However, experts fear that the aborted smuggling attempts might be precursors to trade in weapons-grade substances.

Some couriers may be ″stalking horses″ for more sinister operations, Kyd said.

″There is a belief in the black market that because accountancy has broken down in the Soviet Union, there must be some high value material out there,″ he said.

Update hourly