The middle-aged man sat with his head bowed, flattening his face against his palms. ‘Lots of tears, lovely stuff,’ murmured the cameraman. The presiding judge had given us permission to film ‘arrivals’ at the trial of 53-year-old Polish national Krzysztof Chmist, appearing in court with two fellow countrymen at Bochum in the German industrial region of the Ruhr. No evidence would be offered in the blond-wood courtroom until the camera was removed; in the event, the morning session had to be further delayed while a doctor was called for the distraught Chmist. He has been in custody since last October. He faces up to ten years in prison; so do Zbigniew Fiutkowski, a salesman said to trade in bananas and second-hand cars, and Jaroslaw Maslicz, a businessman. The German attorneys were a little vague about the exact law under which the Poles are being prosecuted, but then there has never been a case like it before. The three allegedly failed to surrender radioactive materials to the proper authorities. The long and the short of it, says the German Republic, is that they were trying to sell a seven-tonne atomic warhead: they were attempting to fence a rocket-top in the red-light district of Frankfurt.

Nuclear weapons are back. After years when all that they were capable of was going intercontinental or ballistic, after going quiet for a brief and largely unremarked spell, they are now going downmarket. They are available as parts, as spares. Nuclear weapons are going demotic, they are going cheap – anybody can have one. After the H-bomb and the A-bomb, the new product line is the D-bomb or the dirty bomb: a common or garden tub or pot of Semtex or TNT with a Mickey Finn of caesium, strontium, uranium. The dirty bomb is not a new idea – it’s been around for as long as there’s been a clean, legit bomb, but that’s just it: it’s only been an idea. Until now. The Soviet security apparatus has collapsed, and irradiated material of the kind required to arm a dirty bomb is at large in former Warsaw Pact countries: everything from hot cobalt stripped from hospital X-ray machines to the missile-tip of which the Poles allegedly bragged to undercover German police. The former KGB officers now running the Russian Ministry of Security told us that one hundred kilos of uranium went missing from the city of Udmertia, next to the country’s principal nuclear weapons facility. One hundred kilos. You can make a pretty convincing nuclear explosion with just 500 grams, no more than you would need to fill a torch battery.

Scotland Yard’s Special Branch has secretly set up a unit to liaise with European police over nuclear smuggling, following 160 cases in Germany alone last year, as well as others in Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium. The alleged hucksters have included convicted con-artists, middlemen, impoverished lab assistants and a Croatian-born priest drawn into the war in his homeland. The police are concerned about a supply route of nuclear material, a bomb alley, across the Continent. They’re worried that the dirty bomb will become the terrorist’s friend. The theory is that in today’s world, the busy international terrorist isn’t going to put together the kind of package needed for a neat and tidy nuclear device, a nice, smart bomb. All that r & d! All that finance! Nonetheless, a child of the Cold War, he understands that by having a radioactive shot in his locker, he will enhance the regard in which his cell is held by the outside world. More crudely: put a cheap and effective new weapon on the market and you’ll always find some guerrilla or other willing to buy it. Moreover, a nuclear capability represents a natural escalation or upgrade from the terrorist’s conventional firepower, in which the destructive payload of a device resides in its shock-wave, in the radioactivity of the fear that it can transmit.

Krzysztof Adamski is, according to police, an acquaintance of his namesake Mr Chmist, and of the others standing trial in Bochum. Like them, Adamski is from Poland – to the Germans, he’s a Spataussiedler, one who belatedly joined the exodus from the East after the installation of Communism. He is 34 years old, and living – or to be precise, dying – in the town of Bad Schwalbach in Hessen. Most of the left side of his chest is a weeping sore. The skin that isn’t open is a rich vermilion. For an hour last year, Adamski carried two small metal pots in his shirt pocket. He was with a group of ‘Polish businessmen’ in Zurich. He later told police he thought the pots contained some harmlessly indivisible element – it might have been neon, he is quoted as saying in one statement. He was reassured by the fact that the chemical scientist from the Baltic States who gave him the jars had similarly worn them in his handkerchief pocket. In fact the jars held two grams of radioactive caesium 137. Adamski received 40,000 millisieverts of radiation, a reliably lethal dose – the most scientists believe the body can safely be exposed to in a year is 0.5 millisieverts. ‘If the doctors are right,’ said Adamski, ‘I’ll be dead soon.’ It’s a toss-up whether the radiation sickness gets him before the cancers can.

For their part, federal investigators would very much like to talk to a Lithuanian whose upper torso is thought to be deliquescing cell by cell. In matters touching on nations which once felt the Nazi jackboot, however, German police hobnails now tread with an egg shell-friendly daintiness. No charges have been brought against Adamski, on the assumption that he couldn’t possibly have known what was in the jars. Privately, however, officers say that Adamski had been set up as an unwitting mule by a group hoping to sell the caesium in the West. The nature of his links with the three Bochum defendants is, at the time of writing, awaiting the deliberations of the learned judge, Herr Ritter. The case against them states that they were involved in smuggling quantities of caesium 137, strontium 90 and possibly uranium across the Polish border last autumn.

Herr Wettengel of the Bundesgrenzschutz, the border patrol, said that the use of geiger counters for searching vehicles has been stepped up since the arrest of the three Poles – it was originally introduced to provide a kind of radiation tachograph, monitoring the millisieverts clocked up by transcontinental juggernauts in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. The officers we spoke to admitted that ‘geiging’ was no more than a deterrent, and perhaps not even that. ‘There are 20,000 people using this border every day, and only 11 guards on each shift,’ explained one of them. ‘We are doing two or three spot-checks a day for radioactive sources, but we rely on intelligence from the East. Many of the lorries are custom-sealed when they set off: we’re not allowed to open them up, and all the metal packaging would make it impossible to detect a small quantity of nuclear material if it was hidden on board.’

In a further sign that the German authorities remain excruciatingly embarrassed by the sins of the Fatherland, the guards make no attempt to run their geiger-counters over foreigners’ private cars. ‘We’ve got enough to worry about with people smuggling drugs and cigarettes,’ one said. In fact, they’ve got enough to worry about with people smuggling people; the border has proved notoriously porous to asylum-seekers. It’s been getting easier to get into Germany from the East, even if you’re a Russian. All you need to get out of Russia into Poland is a written invitation from a Pole agreeing to put you up; and getting out of Poland into Germany is a doddle. Poles don’t even need a visa.

The case against the alleged Polish smugglers says that having brought their contraband across the border, they travelled to Frankfurt am Main – perhaps in the BMW with Katowice plates which was discovered with strontium in the boot in the car-park of the Hotel Mondial. The prosecution case says that on the sleazy strip of Kaiser Strasse – among the blue video kabines, with their fastidious niche-marketing and slicked floor-mops, among the droves of T-shirted men and the panto-dame transvestites in custardy wigs – there is a quoted street price for plutonium: £1 million a kilo. Police said word got around that three crazy Polaks had radioactive elements for sale; that they claimed to know where they could lay their hands on the cone of a Russian-made nuclear weapon. The federal criminal authorities in Stuttgart cocked a trap. A ‘buyer’ allegedly met the Poles in the Sheraton Hotel in Frankfurt, and was offered 10 kilos of uranium for a figure adjacent to $200,000. The three men were arrested. At the city’s main railway station, where the junkies plumb for clear veins beneath a mottled-copper statue of Atlas, firemen in protective equipment recovered caesium from left-luggage locker number 579. It was in a lead casket labelled in Russian. The locker has since been decontaminated; a red metal disc showing in a small glass panel over the keyhole says ‘Belegt’, occupied.

The whereabouts of the uranium, if it ever existed, remain unclear. The warhead is said to be hidden somewhere in Poland. The accused deny all the charges against them, insisting that they were merely ‘dealing in economic goods’. ‘There never was an atomic warhead,’ said Ulrich Grigoleif, a defence lawyer, ‘and if the court doesn’t believe it, I will ask them to get Mr Yeltsin as a witness to say he never lost one.’ The case is expected to conclude by the end of June.

One of the defence arguments appears to be that the German black-market is becoming so comprehensively stocked with nuclear materials that it would scarcely have been worth-while for the Poles, well-set-up men, to run the risk of trafficking in them. Peter Kromer of the Bundeskriminalamt, the federal investigation office, agrees that deposits of illegal radioactive material are steadily accumulating at an atomic plant in Hanau, near Frankfurt. This is used by the police as a nuclear trove – not so much a black museum as a red one. ‘Last year we confiscated different sorts of substances – natural uranium, enriched uranium up to five per cent,’ said Kromer. ‘There were confiscations of caesium in very small amounts. The list is not complete but it shows that radioactive material is available in Germany, that it is offered and sold.’ Kromer, the head of the Republic’s operation against nuclear smuggling, says that the number of cases has multiplied from four in 1990 to 40 the following year; it has increased four-fold since then. Most of the substances appear to have been stolen from nuclear power stations in the East.

Speaking at a European conference on the nuclear crime-wave held in Warsaw in April, Kromer told delegates that no weapons-grade elements had as yet been found in Germany. The most alarming cache, which is believed to have been looted from military installations in the Eastern bloc, was material used by Warsaw Pact commanders in nuclear decontamination exercises. Kromer’s fear is that more highly-enriched material is going to become available with the dismantling of old Soviet missiles, and the expansion of nuclear reprocessing programmes.

Scores of alleged smugglers have now been picked up in German motels, parking lots, autobahn lay-bys. In the same month that the three Poles were detained, police in Munich seized nearly five pounds of uranium and made seven arrests. A Catholic priest and native Croatian, Josip Vidic, was also arrested, suspected of brokering uranium and conventional weapons in Zagreb’s cause. Police claimed to have found incriminating faxes at his house near Passau, though in the end no charges were pressed. Prosecutors said they had no evidence establishing a direct link between the Croatian government and Vidic. ‘The priest said he did not want to deal in weapons but he is a Croatian patriot,’ said a spokesman. ‘It was not so easy for him to decide what to do. The people of his town don’t understand – they think he’s the best priest.’

The evidence is that Europe is up against amateurs rather than some sort of nuclear Cosa Nostra. One gang brought Russian plutonium and uranium into Poland in carrier-bags, calling at the home of one smuggler to hide the consignment behind a toilet. Harald Mueller, of the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, argues that ‘these people show a lack of professionalism by mishandling the material. Our impression is that we’re facing a number of small groups of people trying to make a quick buck. The smuggling is organised to the degree that usually you’re talking about groups of people, but a term like “Russian” mafia is misleading. It gives the impression that you’re talking about one huge organisation but in fact it’s probably a number of competing groups.’

For investigators on the trail of the smugglers and their crackling meal-tickets, the missing link is the end-user, the buyer: so far the trafficking appears to be what the economists would call a supply-side phenomenon. ‘These people have unrealistic plans to initiate some big deal by offering small quantities of nuclear material,’ said Dr Peter Locke, a German academic who has studied the arms trade. ‘They bring it to Western Europe and find out that they can’t get a buyer. In my view, the real hazard is that the criminals just give up and dump their radioactive substances in litter bins, on bus seats.’ Harald Mueller, though, detects the invisible hand of a nuclear market. ‘Usually, these people try to take their packages to places where weapons are traded. There are people, often connected with red-light areas of our bigger cities, who are known to be in the weapons business.’ Are these weapons dealers legitimate or black market? ‘It’s a grey zone,’ said Mueller.

It may be no coincidence that the offices of a number of Middle Eastern businesses – airlines, import/export franchises – are located around the high-tide mark of Frankfurt’s red-light district. Scotland Yard, which was represented at the Warsaw conference but has not so far reported cases of radioactive material being smuggled into Britain, fears nuclear matter falling into the hands of terrorists in the Middle East. (Officers think the IRA is extremely unlikely to place an order, if only because one side-effect of detonating a dirty bomb would be a disastrous PR fallout.) Weapons experts whom we consulted said that the implications of nuclear smuggling were appalling. Terrorists would be able to use material to contaminate water supplies, or to scatter irradiated flakes across a densely populated area. ‘You wouldn’t even need many grammes. In fact, a few tens of curies would be enough, because there’s a considerable psychological effect of knowing that that stuff is scattered around.’

If we know that terrorists may have a nuclear capability, all they need do to make it work for them is to demonstrate a preparedness to use it. That, I’m afraid, isn’t asking very much.

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