The German government ordered a review of security at nuclear plants yesterday after the discovery in a blackberry bush of a glass tube containing plutonium, apparently borrowed by an employee at a reprocessing plant.
As ecologists threatened to sue, Jürgen Trittin, the Environment Minister, accused the authorities of the southern Land of Baden-Würtemberg of "flagrant security failures" at the Karlsruhe facility.
Abnormally high radiation levels were measured in the employee, a 49-year-old man, as well as in his girlfriend and her daughter. The worker and the girlfriend were detained yesterday for smuggling the material out of the plant. The incident came to light when a routine urine test on the employee detected radiation levels several hundred times above normal. Further checks revealed radioactive hot-spots in the man's home and his car. The suspect led investigators to an abandoned French military airfield in southern Germany.
There in the thicket lay a tube 5cm (2 inches) long, wrapped in a rubber glove and work gloves. The contents, a brown solution thought to contain plutonium, were seeping out.
The suspect works at the reprocessing plant in Karlsruhe, which had treated 200 tons of spent nuclear fuel before it was decommissioned in 1990.
He admitted taking a number of contaminated towels and a bottle of liquid from the plant, but said he was unaware that it contained plutonium.
This is the second plutonium scare in Germany. In 1994, the German intelligence service BND planted nearly 400g (14oz) of weapons-grade material on a scheduled Lufthansa flight bound for Munich, allegedly in an effort to test security.
Whether the worker at the Karlsruhe facility was driven by the same motive is not yet clear. What is certain is that the system supposed to prevent nuclear materials going missing has failed.
It could have been just a silly mistake, of course, life imitating farce. For this has already happened, to Homer Simpson, the head of the American cartoon family. Homer works at a nuclear plant, and every episode shows him taking home a glowing tube of radioactive fuel. Perhaps the man from Karlsruhe was one of the millions of German Simpsons fans.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd