AN IRANIAN citizen was caught trying to smuggle a suspicious radioactive substance on board a flight from Moscow to Tehran, Russia has disclosed.
Customs officials at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport said they had found 18 metallic objects packed in steel cases in the passenger's hand luggage that turned out to be the radioactive isotope Sodium-22.
"The radioactivity alarm went off in the departures hall," the Russian federal customs service said in a statement.
"The initial reading showed that the level of normal background radiation exceeded the norm by a factor of 20."
The isotope could only have been manufactured inside a nuclear reactor, it added, suggesting that the unidentified passenger had obtained the substance from someone with access to a nuclear power plant.
But Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for the Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom, said Sodium-22 was used for medical and research purposes rather than for military aims and was produced in cyclotrons, a type of particle accelerator, and not in nuclear reactors.
He said there were "a lot of cyclotrons in Russia" and that they were housed in medical and educational establishments.
The customs service said it had opened a criminal investigation into the incident, which reportedly occurred some time ago.
It has also emerged that the Iranian passenger was allowed to board the flight to Tehran and had not been detained.
Iran has condemned talk of nuclear smuggling as "a lie" aimed at "sabotaging Russo-Iranian relations".
"News of the discovery of a radioactive consignment headed for Iran in Moscow is a lie," an official at Iran's embassy in Moscow told the ISNA news agency.
He offered a more mundane explanation of the events. "Around a month ago a misunderstanding occurred with a university student who was carrying material used for dentistry. This issue was quickly solved and he was offered an apology for the misunderstanding," the official said.
Russia has had close commercial, political and trading ties with Iran and has supplied it with weapons in the past. The Kremlin has defied the wrath of the West to help Iran build its first nuclear power station in Bushehr, which opened in September.
It has also opposed new United Nations sanctions on Tehran aimed at preventing the country from pursuing a nuclear weapons programme which Moscow argues is non-existent. (© Daily Telegraph, London)