Abandoned Soviet Nuclear Batteries Found and Recovered in Georgia"
(Source : Russian National Information Service ; issued Feb. 5, 2002)
Two encased but unshielded sources of strontium-90, found near Georgia's northern border with the breakaway republic of Abkhazia late last year were safely recovered and transported to a temporary storage facility on Sunday.
After investigation, it was discovered that the cans - discovered by three woodsmen in December who were puzzled by the way the snow was melting around them - were in fact abandoned nuclear batteries, which were used in the former Soviet Union to generate electricity, heat, and battery power for remote communication systems.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been overseeing the recovery operation, when encased in titanium-based ceramic, the batteries cannot be dispersed to the environment are not a danger to people - so long as they don't come too close.
The woodsmen, however, were not aware that the batteries should not have been handled and carried them back to their camp for warmth. It wasn't long until they were feeling sick and dizzy and all three men had to be treated for radiation sickness in Tbilisi. The IAEA reports that two of the men remain in hospital this week, and are said to be in serious condition.
IAEA spokesman Melissa Fleming told Reuters that the Georgian authorities contacted the IAEA on December 24th because they were alarmed by the find and the men's growing sickness. On December 3rd IAEA emergency response and radiation specialists were sent to Georgia to assist with the retrieval and transport of the batteries.
With the current instability in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and reports that Chechen rebel leaders have been hiding out on Abkhazian territory, the discovery of the radioactive batteries on the Georgia-Abkhazia border has caused great alarm.
Indeed, the latest incident has sparked concerns about the safety and security of radiation sources not only in Georgia but elsewhere too. Some fear that terrorists could make use of such abandoned devices to make so-called "dirty bombs", which would scatter radioactive material and contaminate a whole area rather than harnessing the energy to create an atomic explosion.
Such fears would seem to be well founded. An article dedicated to the subject on the IAEA website revealed that this is not the first time that discarded or "orphan" radioactive sources have been found in Georgia. It says experts estimate that many others remain, "lost, abandoned or otherwise outside of regulatory control."
When asked about the radioactive sources that have been found in Georgia in the past, IAEA spokesman Melissa Fleming told The Russian Observer in a telephone interview from Prague that since Georgia had gained independence in 1991, a total of 280 Soviet era radioactive sources had been found on Georgian soil. She underlined that the sources had had a number of uses in Soviet times, but were mainly used by the military.
Due to the fact that the IAEA was not always involved in retrieving stray radioactive devices, Ms. Fleming was not able to confirm in what years the sources were recovered. She did, however, say that four sources of the same radioactive material - strontium-90 - had been recovered from Georgia in 1998.
The CIA report, "Views on Terrorism", stresses that to the best of the Agency's knowledge, terrorists are not in possession of fissile materials, i.e. materials capable of causing a nuclear explosion. However, the CIA paper includes strontium-90 in its list of nuclear non-fissile materials, which could be used by terrorists to contaminate water supplies, business centers, government facilities, or transportation networks.
The "Views on Terrorism" reads: "Although it is unlikely they would cause significant numbers of casualties, they (the non-fissiles strontium-90,cesium-137 and cobalt-60) could cause physical disruption, interruption of economic activity, post-incident clean-up, and psychological trauma to a workforce and to a populace."
IAEA experts and the Georgian authorities are to meet with Russian, U.S. and French officials to review the recovery operation in Tbilisi from the 6th to the 8th of February. The IAEA has underlined that the participants will be focusing on how best to ensure the longer-term safe and secure storage of radioactive sources in Georgia, and will draft plans to locate and recover other discarded sources.