Washington: A scientist and his wife, who both worked at the leading US nuclear research facility, were arrested on Friday and charged with trying to sell secrets to Venezuela that would help it build an atomic bomb within a decade, US officials said.
The pair, both US citizens, "have been indicted on charges of communicating classified nuclear weapons data to a person they believed to be a Venezuelan government official and conspiring to participate in the development of an atomic weapon for Venezuela," the US Department of Justice said in a statement.
The defendants, Pedro Mascheroni, 75, and Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, 67, had both worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the southwestern state of New Mexico, and could face life in prison if convicted on all charges.
They had sought USD 793,000 in payment for the restricted and classified data which they believed they had provided to a Venezuelan contact, but who was actually an undercover FBI agent.
The Justice Department was quick to acknowledge that the indictment does not allege any wrongdoing by the Venezuelan government or anyone acting on its behalf, and also said no one currently working at Los Alamos was charged or accused of wrongdoing.
But the revelations could still sharpen relations between the United States and Venezuela, whose firebrand leftist President Hugo Chavez is a vocal critic of his US counterpart Barack Obama.
According to the statement, among the 22 indictments, the defendants are charged with "communicating `restricted data` to an individual with the intent to injure the United States and secure an advantage to a foreign nation," conspiring to participate in development of an atomic weapon, concealing US records, and several counts of making false statements.
The department revealed a series of startling details about the Mascheronis` plans to pass the nuclear secrets to Venezuela, beginning in March 2008 when the husband had conversations with the undercover agent.
During the talks, "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," according to the Justice Department.
Pedro Mascheroni -- a naturalised US citizen from Argentina -- is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos from 1979 to 1988, while his wife worked there between 1981 and this year, the Justice Department said. Both held security clearances that allowed them access to certain classified information.