[A-List] US imperialism: Georgia
Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Wed Mar 27 07:19:17 MST 2002
West scours Georgia for nuclear trash
Ian Traynor in Tbilisi
Wednesday March 27, 2002
Leading western countries are planning a massive search in Georgia for potential "dirty bomb" materials - highly radioactive and mobile nuclear batteries which, it is feared, could be combined with conventional explosives to lethal effect by terrorists.
An emergency meeting of western nuclear safety specialists, including experts from Britain, in Paris in a fortnight is expected to agree on air, road and foot searches of the post-Soviet state for two missing lead containers of strontium-90, the first such national quest ever undertaken.
The alarm was raised in December when three lumberjacks working in the mountains of northern Georgia came across another two nuclear batteries, stripped of their lead casing. The men innocently carried them away in rucksacks and suffered severe burns and radiation sickness. One of the three is fighting for his life in a French hospital.
"September 11 has made everyone think differently about this," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which will also attend the Paris meeting. "There is more than an assumption that there are two more [abandoned nuclear devices] left in Georgia."
In the 1960s and 70s, the former Soviet Union manufactured at least 1,000 of these small nuclear batteries to generate electricity in remote areas to power lighthouses, and transmission towers. They were also used extensively by the Soviet military and in satellites.
In the post-Soviet chaos, the devices were abandoned, frequently without supervision. There are believed to be many more of them scattered in remote areas of Moldova, post-Soviet central Asia and the Russian far east.
"In Georgia you have a weak state and Muslim extremists," said a senior European official in Tbilisi. "If you put the strontium together with classical explosives, you could make a town highly radioactive."
The strontium in the small power generators has a radioactivity of 40,000 curies, so potent that an international salvage crew sent into Georgia to recover the devices found by the lumberjacks operated in special clothing. They were allowed to manipulate the heavy metal only from a distance of two metres and for only 40 seconds at a time.
The two batteries are being stored at an undisclosed location outside Tbilisi.
Ms Fleming said the strontium in the two missing containers - christened "orphan sources" - would be encased in very hard ceramic, making it difficult to disperse.
However, she said: "It is potential for a dirty bomb if it is shrouded in conventional explosives and then set off. But the strontium would need to be naked - someone would need to handle it and shroud it. The person [making the bomb] would need to be prepared to die."
In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the US, there is widespread western concern about suicide nuclear bombers.
An internal IAEA paper last month by the its director general, Mohammed El Baradei, stressed the sense of increasing urgency because of the discovery of the "two highly radioactive sources" in Georgia, close to the Middle East and cheek by jowl with the war in Chechnya.
"Radioactive sources are vulnerable to theft. Some are completely unprotected because they have become orphaned from regulatory control," Mr El Baradei said.
The IAEA knows of almost 400 cases of trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials since 1993. Of those, 18 involved small volumes of weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium, and most of those cases originated in the former Soviet Union.
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michael.keaney at mbs.fi
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