US & Canada

US couple 'tried to pass nuclear secrets to Venezuela'

Los Alamos, New Mexico

The US has charged a pair of former nuclear contractors with attempting to leak nuclear secrets to Venezuela.

The husband and wife team were arrested on Friday in New Mexico and accused of passing nuclear information to an FBI agent posing as a Venezuelan spy.

US citizens Pedro and Marjorie Mascheroni were contractors at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a centre of US nuclear research.

The US justice department did not accuse Venezuela of wrongdoing.

"The conduct alleged in this indictment is serious and should serve as a warning to anyone who would consider compromising our nation's nuclear secrets for profit," Assistant Attorney General David Kris said in a statement.

'Access to secrets'

Mr Mascheroni, a 75-year-old native of Argentina, worked as a scientist at Los Alamos from 1979 until 1988, when he was fired after criticising US nuclear research funding priorities, according to court documents.

Mrs Mascheroni was a technical writer and editor from 1981 to 2010, the justice department said.

The pair had access to nuclear secrets, including material on the design and manufacture of nuclear weapons, it said.

According to the justice department, in March 2008 Mr Mascheroni met an FBI agent posing as a Venezuelan intelligence operative named Luis Jimenez at a hotel in the US city of Santa Fe.

Mr Mascheroni allegedly said he could help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb within 10 years and a nuclear energy programme, and described a potential "umbrella" deterrent strategy for the Latin American nation.

"Mascheroni told 'Jimenez' that after Venezuela conducted a test of its nuclear weapons, Venezuela could cause an explosion over New York that would result in an electromagnetic pulse that he contended would not kill anybody but would destroy all the electric power in New York," the federal indictment states.

'Dead drop'

Mr Mascheroni asked about obtaining Venezuelan citizenship and said he hoped to be paid $800,000 (£512,000) for his services, the indictment states.

Soon after contact with the agent began, Mr Mascheroni informed his wife about the meeting, characterising it as a "secret".

In July 2009, Mrs Mascheroni helped her husband write and edit a document containing US nuclear secrets, which Mr Mascheroni then delivered to a "dead drop location" for collection by the purported Venezuelan agent, according to the indictment.

Mr Mascheroni was fired from Los Alamos in 1988 after criticising the US government's research funding priorities, according to a 1994 judgement in a lawsuit he filed challenging the dismissal. He argued the government should fund a laser project he was working on, rather than another.

He had refused orders to cease his complaints, was transferred to another division, had his security clearance revoked and was ultimately dismissed, the lawsuit stated.