Russia says terrorists seeking nuclear materials

A Russian serviceman passes by the opened SS-18 intercontinental ballistic multiple-warhead Satan missile launching silo in the town of Kartaly in the Russia's Chelyabinsky region, August 16, 2002. REUTERS/Stringer

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The chief of Russia’s state security service said on Wednesday that terrorists were seeking access to nuclear materials across the former Soviet Union, Russian news agencies reported.

Alexander Bortnikov, the chief of the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, gave no further details about the attempts or which groups had sought the materials.

“We have information which indicates that terrorists are continuing to attempt to get access to nuclear materials (and) biological and chemical components,” he was quoted as saying by Interfax and Itar-Tass.

“We are paying constant attention to this issue,” Bortnikov said, referring to concerns that terrorists could get their hands on nuclear materials.

Nuclear experts say there is no sign that terrorists have acquired weapons-grade nuclear material but there have been at least 18 documented cases of theft or loss of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, several in the ex-Soviet Union.

Despite major, heavily U.S.-funded security improvements at Russian facilities containing nuclear materials since the 1991 Soviet collapse, experts say the risk of theft remains.

Among concerns are the potential for theft by insiders -- particularly in a country plagued by corruption -- as well as imperfect accounting for the materials and inexperienced guards, according to Harvard University nuclear expert Matthew Bunn.

A recent report by Bunn commissioned by the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative said the highest risks of nuclear theft today were in Pakistan and Russia, which has the largest stockpiles.

Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman; editing by Dmitry Solovyov and Elizabeth Fullerton