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Georgia halts plutonium at border

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian customs officers sent a car carrying a mixture of plutonium and beryllium back to Azerbaijan after foiling an attempt to smuggle the materials over the border, Georgian television reported yesterday.

Customs officials found the materials, which can be used in the making of nuclear bombs, during what appeared to be a routine customs check as the car was driven over the border from Azerbaijan, the Imedi tele- vision station reported.

"Georgian customs detected a high level of radiation while checking one of the cars," Imedi reported.

"They discovered plutonium-beryllium."

There were scant details about the find.

The car was sent back to Azerbaijan, although smuggling nuclear materials is a crime under Georgian law.

It was unclear whether Azeri authorities had been informed.

"The decision to send it back was made," Soso Kakushadze, head of the environment ministry's radiation department, told Reuters.

"It was the right decision, as it would have been very expensive to keep it in Georgia, and special conditions are needed," he said.

Reports did not indicate where the plutonium and beryllium were from. Interior ministry officials declined to comment.

Plutonium is used in most nuclear weapons, but several kilograms are needed to make even a primitive atomic bomb.

Beryllium, a toxic metal, can be used to form a neutron initiator that triggers a nuclear explosion. It can be used to moderate nuclear reactions.

Georgian special services foiled an attempt by a Russian citizen to sell weapons-grade uranium for $1 million in Georgia in February 2006.

Radioactive materials were used to generate power in remote areas in Soviet times, but during the chaos that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union, many devices were abandoned.