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By Sergei Blagov
By Sergei Blagov MOSCOW, Nov 10 (IPS) - Russian president Boris Yeltsin's former environmental safety adviser claims to have new evidence that some of Russia's 'portable' nuclear bombs might be missing, as earlier asserted -- and officially repudiated -- this year. ''The government officials deny the existence of suitcases with nuclear bombs simply because the devices are called nuclear mines by the defence ministry,'' academician Alexei Yablokov said in a interview published Monday by the Novaya Gazeta weekly. ''Russia has 700 nuclear charges of this type and the U.S. used to have 608 devices,'' Yablokov said, declining to reveal his sources. He was sacked from Yeltsin's administration earlier this year after representing the environmental case to top former Soviet and Russian agencies since 1989. He was chairman of the activist NGO Greenpeace-Soviet Union up to 1990. Russia's atomic energy ministry (MinAtom) rejected Yablokov's claims. ''We don't know why these groundless allegations are repeatedly published. Yablokov is not an expert in nuclear safety, and the discussion is no longer purely technical,'' ministry spokesman Vladislav Petrov told IPS. The ministry insists that Russia's security system keeps nuclear warheads under tight control. Warnings about the suitcase bombs were first voiced in September by retired General Alexander Lebed, Russia's former security chief and a top Yeltsin rival. He asserted that of 132 such bombs, 84 are missing and that they were capable of killing up to 100,000 people. Lebed said the devices were designed for sabotage behind enemy lines. He described them as weighing 30-45 kilos and fitting into a suitcase or backpack. The bombs, measuring 60 x 40 x 20 centimetres, Lebed said, had been distributed among special Soviet army intelligence units. Lebed, who ran against Yeltsin in last year's presidential campaign, dropped out of the race and briefly served as national security chief. He was fired last October, but since then Lebed has never concealed his presidential ambitions. Lebed said the weapons might be in Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic republics or other countries outside Russia. Both the White House and the Kremlin have discounted Lebed's claims. Prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin called his allegations ''absolute stupidity''. Russian Defense Ministry experts denied the existence of suitcase-sized nuclear bombs, saying such devices were technically possible but too costly and inefficient to produce. They claimed that a nuclear weapon the size of a suitcase could only be placed in a detonatable condition for a few months. International nuclear experts generally conclude that Russia has strict control over its military nuclear sites and view nuclear bomb and missile theft as highly unlikely. But they said there had been cases of theft of nuclear materials from power plants and scientific laboratories. Two months ago Russian authorities seized 3.8 kilogrammes of stolen uranium isotope and detained a gang suspected of trying to sell it. The uranium-238, kept in a metal cylinder inside a lead isolator, was found at the home of an unemployed man in the North Caucasus. Investigators said the uranium was stolen in 1994 from the Arzamas-16 nuclear research center near the city of Nizhny Novgorod, located about 400 kilometres east of Moscow. The uranium reportedly had been offered to several prospective buyers in Russia and the Baltic states. Since the fall of the Soviet Union nuclear materials have sometimes gone missing from Russian power stations or scientific institutions. It only takes a few kilogrammes of plutonium or highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon, but the technology to make a workable bomb would be expensive to acquire and hard to hide. On Sep. 29 Yeltsin declared that Russia planned to significantly reduce its stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium as part of an overall nuclear cutback. In a letter to the Geneva-based International Atomic Energy Agency, Yeltsin said Russia would remove 500 tons of weapons-grade uranium and 50 tons of plutonium from its military establishments. A recent international study estimated that a total of 1,750 tons of highly enriched uranium and 230 tons plutonium have been produced worldwide for military purposes over the past 50 years. Russia will still retain a large nuclear arsenal. The START II accord sets a warhead limit of 3,500 for both the United States and Russia, down from 6,000. Yeltsin signed the agreement with the United States in 1993, though Russia's communist and nationalist dominated parliament has yet to ratify it.