Why would the Venezuelan government want information about U.S. nuclear technology?

Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, 71, and her husband, Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, 79, may know the answer to that question.

The two former employees of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico pleaded guilty in June 2013 to conspiring to violate the Atomic Energy Act after being indicted three years before. Roxby Mascheroni was sentenced Wednesday to a year and a day in federal prison. U.S District Judge William Johnson in Albuquerque also sentenced her to three years of supervised probation after her release.

Her husband has not been sentenced yet but faces a five-and-a-half year prison term, according to prosecutors.

The couple admitted "communicating classified nuclear weapons data to a person believed to be a Venezuelan government official, and making false statements to the FBI," according to the Department of Justice.

In court documents, federal authorities described a bizarre plan by Pedro Mascheroni to help Venezuela, under former President Hugo Chavez, build missiles and a nuclear bomb along with a secret underground facility for a nuclear reactor and production of “mini-bombs," according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Mascheroni also suggested using an electromagnetic pulse weapon that would knock out electricity across New York City, using a laser beam to blind satellites, and making Venezuela a defense "umbrella" for Latin America capable of retaliating against attacks with nuclear bombs, the Journal reported.

The indictment did not accuse the Venezuelan government or anyone acting on its behalf of seeking or receiving classified information, nor did it charge any Venezuelan government officials or anyone acting on their behalf with wrongdoing.

However, the attempted passing of nuclear information to Venezuela is intriguing.

"Venezuela possesses almost no nuclear infrastructure, little nuclear expertise, and is a member of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty," according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit that works against nuclear proliferation.

"The country's technical alliances, military trade, and nuclear cooperation with Russia and Iran, among other countries, raise some proliferation concerns," NTI states on its website.

Roxby Mascheroni worked at Los Alamos between 1981 and 2010 as a technical writer and editor, according to court filings.

Los Alamos, in New Mexico, is one of two major centers for the U.S. government's classified research on nuclear weapons. (Photo: flickr user Cavalier92, used under a Creative Commons license.)
Her security clearance allowed her to access certain classified information, including restricted data about the design, manufacture or use of nuclear weapons, the production of special nuclear material or the use of such material in the production of energy.

Her husband, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina, is a physicist who worked as a scientist at Los Alamos from 1979 to 1988. He held a similar security clearance.

With her guilty plea, Roxby Mascheroni admitted that between 2007 and 2009 she and her husband conspired to convey restricted data to another person with reason to believe the information would be used to eventually "secure an advantage to Venezuela," according to the Justice Department. Her one-year sentence was well under the mandatory 14-year minimum she could have faced had she been convicted at trial, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Her husband admitted that in November 2008 and July 2009 he did the same as Roxby Mascheroni with the information he had obtained.

He also admitted to converting Department of Energy information illegally for his own use and selling the information in those months, as well as failing to give classified information about the United States' national defense to the proper authorities and instead keeping it in his home.

The indictment did not allege any wrongdoing by other employees of the Los Alamos laboratory.

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