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Former Los Alamos scientist indicted on nuclear charges

By Terry Frieden, CNN
  • The scientist and his wife are accused of trying to provide nuclear secrets to Venezuela
  • An indictment alleges the physicist wanted $793,000 for services
  • The U.S. citizens worked as contractors at a New Mexico laboratory
  • Venezuela's government knew nothing about the plans, officials say

Washington (CNN) -- A former Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear scientist and his wife were indicted Friday on charges of trying to provide nuclear secrets to Venezuela, but U.S. officials stressed the Venezuelan government knew nothing about the plans.

The officials said they have no information from this undercover operation that Hugo Chavez's government has any plans to try to build a nuclear weapon.

Argentina native Pedro Mascheroni, 75, and Roxby Mascheroni, 67, are U.S. citizens who worked as contractors at Los Alamos in New Mexico, officials said.

Pedro Mascheroni, who has a Ph.D in physics, worked as a scientist at Los Alamos from 1979 to 1988. His wife worked as a technical writer and editor there from 1981 to 2010, prosecutors said.

The indictment says in 2008, Pedro Mascheroni had a series of conversations with an undercover FBI agent posing as an official with the Caracas government.

"Mascheroni allegedly said he could help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb within 10 years and that under his program, Venezuela would use a secret underground nuclear reactor to produce and enrich plutonium and an open, above-ground reactor to produce nuclear energy," the U.S. Justice Department said.

The indictment states that during a March 30, 2008, meeting with an undercover agent posing as Venezuelan operative "Luis Jimenez," Pedro Mascheroni said his proposed program included a laser "capable of blinding satellites" and also suggested Venezuela might seek to obtain "a high explosive package" from Iran.

The charging document further alleges that in the FBI sting, Pedro Mascheroni provided a coded disc with classified data at a post office box drop site. The government says Mascheroni told his handler his fee for the document was $793,000.

The investigation came to a head in June 2009, when agents paid Pedro Mascheroni $20,000 for an initial payment. Months later, FBI agents confronted the couple. The indictment alleges both made a series of false statements in response.

The defendants both appeared in federal court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Friday. Pedro Mascheroni was ordered to be detained pending a hearing Monday; Roxby Mascheroni was released until the hearing, the Justice Department said.

The couple could face up to life in prison if convicted on all counts.