Radioactive Devices Found in Remote Caucasus

National Geographic News
January 31, 2002
The International Atomic Energy Agency has dispatched a team to a remote
area near Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region in the Caucasus to help
local officials find two portable devices believed to be highly
radioactive, Science magazine reported in its current

"The crisis began with a fax on Christmas Eve from
Georgian authorities" said the report in the February 1 issue of the
magazine. "Three men gathering wood near Lja on December 2, 2001 had
found two containers that appeared to have melted the nearby snow.
Lugging the containers back to their campsite for warmth, the men soon
became dizzy and nauseous and started vomiting. Within a week, radiation
burns began to develop on their backs."

IAEA, the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency based in Vienna, Austria, dispatched three investigators to Tbilisi on January 4, but heavy snows and rough terrain prevented them from reaching the objects, agency spokesperson Melissa Fleming told National Geographic News.

"Our delegation has been in the region since Sunday, primarily training a local team to secure these objects," Fleming said. "This is an extremely difficult operation and very dangerous.

"The objects are in an incredibly remote place. We know exactly where they are. We made an attempt to go in before, but both the weather and the landscape were too severe and it was impossible," she said.

Devices are "Almost Impossible to Move"

Fleming said there was no great concern that terrorists might reach the devices before the authorities get to them. "It would be almost impossible to move these devices unless you want to kill yourself. It would be just as difficult and dangerous for terrorists to handle these objects as it is for us. And we've got the equipment and expertise to do the job," she said. "Nonetheless, there is an urgency to get to the objects as they are too dangerous to leave lying about."

The IAEA team and local officials have made special manipulators to move the objects remotely into protective containers. Once they have been secured they will be moved to a place where they can be stored in safety.

"Such containers were found in the region before,"Science said. "In 1998, not far from Lja, a fisherman found one in a riverbed. Physicists in Tbilisi later discovered that it was packed with strontium-90, emitting a whopping 40,000 curies of radiation, equivalent to the radiation from strontium-90 released during the 1986 Chernobyl explosion and fire."

According to Science, Soviet labs apparently produced several hundred generators like this one, including some with radioactivity levels as high as 100,000 curies. None of these high-powered models have yet turned up, and only a handful of the 40,000-curie devices have been recovered in covert operations in four countries: Georgia, Belarus, Estonia, and Tajikistan.

Officials from IAEA and Georgia, France, Russia, and the United States are expected to meet in Tbilisi on February 4 to review the recovery effort.

World on Heightened Alert to Nuclear Terrorism

The head of the IAEA, Mohamed El Baradei, said last November that the ruthlessness of the September 11 attacks had alerted the world to the potential of nuclear terrorism, making it "far more likely" that terrorists could target nuclear facilities, nuclear material, and radioactive sources worldwide. "

The IAEA helps countries around the world prevent, intercept, and respond to terrorist acts and other nuclear safety and security incidents. It has the only international response system in place capable of acting immediately to assist countries in the event of a radiological emergency caused by a nuclear terrorist attack.

Although terrorists have never used a nuclear weapon, reports that some terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda, have attempted to acquire nuclear material is a cause of great concern.

According to the IAEA, since 1993 there have been 175 cases of trafficking in nuclear material and 201 cases of trafficking in other radioactive sources (such as for medical and industrial uses). However, only 18 of these cases have actually involved small amounts of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the material needed to produce a nuclear bomb.

IAEA experts believe the quantities involved are not sufficient to construct a nuclear explosive device. "However, any such materials being in illicit commerce and conceivably accessible to terrorist groups is deeply troubling," said El Baradei.

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