published by WISE News Communique on October 5, 2001
(555.5321) anti atom aktuell - The Karlsruhe Plutonium Affair (see WISE News Communique 552.5298, "Plutonium contamination incident in Germany") continues to cause commotion: murder theories, contradictions in the statements of those affected, their lawyer's accusations and the radiation protection measures being prepared for a unique "atomic" police operation.
To recap: In June, a foreign worker for a decommissioning firm at the pilot reprocessing plant WAK in Karlsruhe was found to have higher than normal radiation levels during a routine control. After he confessed to have stolen plutonium from the installation, and after the recovery of a small tube and a cloth, the 47-year-old thief was arrested.
His lawyer is now attacking the investigators, saying that the investigations are too slow. The flats in Landau and Eschbach in the German State of Rhineland-Palatinate must be investigated urgently if an application is made for his client to be detained for a longer period pending investigations. Currently his client is being held in custody in Hohenasperg awaiting trial because of the danger of evidence being tampered with.
The state attorney would also very much like to go into the flats to secure evidence. However the evidence, just like the air inside the flats, is still strongly radioactive - around 600 times permitted limits. As a result, the authorities responsible under the German Atomic Law, the Struktur- und Genehmingungsdirektion South in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, has sealed both flats and declared them "no admittance zones". Only after a further four weeks will controlled entrances be constructed to give the investigators and radiation protection workers access to the flats.
The authorities in Neustadt said on 20 August: "Our aim is to organize the police investigations and the decontamination of the flats seamlessly as one operation. There are no guidelines for that. A safety plan is currently being drawn up by a private firm." The contract was issued on 17 August - eight weeks after the discovery of the plutonium theft. The case creates a precedence, because it is the first time private living accommodation has been radioactively contaminated.
The Federal Environment Ministry in Berlin, which is the highest supervisory authority for nuclear matters, wants nothing to do with the two flats. "We are only responsible for nuclear installations", explained a spokesperson slightly nervously. Responsibility lies with the State Environment Ministry of Rhineland-Palatinate in Mainz. They in turn pass on responsibility to the sub-office in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, who say "No guidelines exist for us to follow". In any case it is certain that working restrictions will apply as in a radiation zone: full body monitoring, controlled entrances, protective suits with an external air supply, filtering and exchanging the air in the flats, which is contaminated with alpha and gamma-emitting substances.
Because no-one may currently enter the contaminated flats, they are not classed as a radiation zone. Someone forgot to lower one of the roller shutters, even though children play soccer nearby and a window-pane could easily get broken, leading to the terse comment: "For us, its the first time we have done this, and we have now covered the window with a protective film."
Meanwhile the question of responsibility appears to have been resolved. The Baden-Württemberg state authorities in Stuttgart say: "The responsibility for further action lies in Rhineland-Palatinate".
Whether the flat of the 51-year-old girlfriend of the plutonium thief is just as contaminated as the man's flat is unknown. Before the official sealing of the woman's flat, the investigating authorities neglected to check for alpha radiation. The state attorney must now wait a further four weeks for this result. Only then can one be sure that there is not a further, as yet undiscovered plutonium source. The costs of decontamination of items which might be used as evidence and the flats themselves will run into millions of DM. It was denied on 20 August that there was a dispute about sharing of costs between Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. They have come to the following understanding: Baden-Württemberg will pay for the investigations and Rhineland-Palatinate will pay for the decontamination of the flats. And in the end, presumably, claims for damages will be made against the WAK, because hardly any of the costs can be recovered from the culprit.
In the meantime, wild speculations about the motives of the thief are doing the rounds. "Stern" Online reported on 20 August that the safety authorities were investigating the plutonium thief for attempted murder. The couple had been quarrelling for a long time. Both the state attorney and lawyer Christan Opitz deny the rumors, but they are certainly not able to explain the different profile of irradiation received by the man and the woman.
While the thief, of Portuguese origin but with a German passport, is said to have the same inhalation components as his 51-year-old girlfriend, who works as a sales assistant in a bakery, she has ten times as much cesium-137 contamination. It is assumed that she received this orally. The investigators consider it possible that she could be not only a victim, but also a culprit. So much cesium-137 was measured in her body that it is too much to be ingested accidentally. Either she ingested it with food or drink, or there are additional radioactive sources as yet undetected - possibly in her flat.
As for the motive for the act and the question of what both of them were really up to with the plutonium, the investigators are still in the dark. Lawyer Opitz has his own explanation for the difference in their contamination profiles. His client smuggled a cloth, of a type used in the WAK for making so-called wipe tests, out of the WAK in a packet of unused cloths - and later returned some of the unused cloths. The supposedly "clean" cloths were used at home for cleaning or as napkins. It is also considered possible that the plutonium-containing tube found in the bushes at the former military airfield had never been in the WAK. When asked about this, a pensioner who formerly worked there gave a clear answer: "I've never seen such a thing".
Now it is conjectured that the couple could have boiled out the cloth at home and filled up extra tubes with even more plutonium than has been found up to now. Meanwhile, one thing appears certain: the broken tube which was found in the bush at the airfield did not get broken there, nor in its alleged storage place in the thief's oven. In both places there was no radiation measured. Where, then, did it break?
These are questions which the people involved have not answered up to now. If he did it merely to expose lax security in the WAK, as the thief claimed, then he would have gone to the press immediately around the time when the act is presumed to have taken place, at the end of last year, as even his lawyer admits. And what if the man and the woman, or just the man, had already done something silly with the plutonium? This could also explain their persistent silence.
[Translated by WISE Amsterdam from an article in the German anti atom aktuell, October 2001]
Source: anti atom aktuell, October 2001
Contact: Matthias Mauser at Arbeitskreis gegen das AKW Philippsburg Tel: +49 721 607 647