MOSCOW--For much of the past year, government officials here have been trying to confiscate 60 tons of ultrapure gallium that forms the heart of a neutrino detector beneath the mountains of the northern Caucasus. Late last month, armed thieves almost beat them to it. Russia's Ministry of the Interior is now conducting an investigation into how the bandits defeated an elaborate security system and nearly succeeded in stealing the detector's valuable metal core.
The $60 million Soviet-American Gallium Experiment (SAGE) is one of the largest research collaborations between Russia and the United States. Operated by the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Nuclear Research (INR), the neutrino detector has, since the mid-80s, been studying the flow of neutrinos streaming from the sun. Low-energy neutrinos can transform a gallium nucleus into radioactive germanium-71, which can later be extracted and counted. SAGE's 60-ton gallium detector sits in a 3.5-kilometer tunnel deep below Andyrchi mountain near the town of Baksan.
Leonid Bezrukov, deputy head of the INR, told Science that the break-in was carried out by six masked men armed with two machine guns, according to the account of a forklift driver who was taken hostage. The burglars seemed to know what they were looking for, because they ignored several laboratory buildings and headed straight for the tunnel and the vast, underground experiment hall. Entrance to the hall is restricted to those on a special access list approved by the administration. The high security was installed because the gallium has been under threat of confiscation by the government, apparently to provide some quick cash (Science, 11 April, p. 193). Although the thieves managed to bust through the doors, they fled before reaching the gallium.
Criminal investigators working on the case are forbidden by law to discuss it. Bezrukov, however, believes the thieves may have had help from a lab employee, because of their knowledge of the observatory's layout. He even speculates that the government may have been involved. "The battle for the gallium has never stopped. It was continuing all this year and we are gradually losing it."