- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia’s customs agency announced Friday it has seized pieces of radioactive metal from the luggage of an Iranian passenger bound for Tehran from one of Moscow’s main airports.

It was not immediately clear if the substance could be any use to Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

Iran’s semi-official news agency ISNA confirmed that material had been seized from the luggage of an Iranian passenger in Moscow about a month ago, but denied it was radioactive.

Russia’s Federal Customs Service said in a statement that agents found 18 pieces of metal, packed in steel pencil cases, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after a radiation alert went off. It said the gauges showed that radiation levels were 20 times higher than normal.

Spokeswoman Kseniya Grebenkina told The Associated Press the luggage was seized some time ago, but did not specify when. The Iranian wasn’t detained, she said, and it was not clear whether he was still in Russia or not. She did not give his name. The pieces contained Sodium-22, she said, a radioactive isotope of sodium that could be produced in a particle accelerator.

Kelly Classic, a health physicist at the United States’ renowned Mayo Clinic, said: “You can’t make a nuclear bomb or dirty bomb with it.”

“You’d certainly wonder where it came from and why,” Classic told The Associated Press. “It’s prudent to be a little leery considering where the person’s going.”

Classic said the isotope can be used in devices that determine the thickness of metals.

Another expert, Michael Unterweger, group leader for the radioactivity group at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, said it can be used as a calibration source for radiation instrumentation.

Unterweger said “it’s really strange” that so much Sodium 22 was in the luggage, but if he were the Russian authorities “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Iran’s ISNA news agency quoted an official at the Iranian Embassy in Moscow as denying that radioactive materials were seized from the luggage of an Iranian passenger bound for Tehran.

“About a month ago, a misunderstanding arose in connection with (an Iranian) student who was carrying some materials for dentistry uses. The issue was quickly resolved and apologies were offered to him,” ISNA quoted the official as saying Friday.

ISNA didn’t name the official but quoted him as blaming Western media for publishing incorrect information, although the reports first came from the Russian customs service.

“These reports seek to damage Iran-Russia relations,” the official was quoted as saying.

Grebenkina said prosecutors have launched a probe into the incident but insisted that the material seized is not highly radioactive.

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