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Russian scientist surrenders plutonium

MOSCOW -- A Russian atomic scientist surrendered to police yesterday eight containers filled with arms-grade nuclear material that he had kept in his garage for eight years, Russian media reported.

But an Atomic Ministry official denied that the 14 ounces of plutonium-238 found by Leonid Grigorov in a heap of rubbish at his laboratory was weapons-grade.

The Interfax news agency said the lab near Russia's border with Kazakhstan, looted after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, eventually was closed and deserted. Grigorov decided to hide the material, which theoretically could be used to make a ''dirty bomb," in boxes and handed them in to local police only after a newspaper offered a reward to anyone who surrendered weapons.

''As an expert, I knew that I had to [hide it] to avoid tragic consequences," Grigorov was quoted as saying.

The Itar-Tass news agency quoted Nikolai Shingarev, a representative of the Russian Atomic Ministry, as saying the material was not arms-grade.

''It is not weapons-grade material, but an isotope which is widely used in different devices," Shingarev said. ''Any enterprise which has a license can freely obtain plutonium-238."

Russia, with its huge nuclear arsenal, is under pressure to prevent dangerous atomic material from falling into the hands of extremists after the Soviet collapse left many nuclear facilities under-protected. There is also speculation that nuclear scientists, underpaid since the Soviet collapse, may be secretly selling sensitive technology to what Washington calls ''rogue" states. Russia denies such activity is occurring.

In a separate incident, 97 pounds of radioactive scrap metal was discovered in Chelaybinsk, Tass reported yesterday.

The region is heavily polluted with radioactive material from its nuclear reactor and plants producing plutonium for atomic bombs. The local Mayak nuclear complex dumped 2.68 billion cubic feet of highly radioactive waste into a river between 1949 and 1956, and an explosion there in 1957 showered radiation over the southern Ural Mountains.

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