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The Hunt for Hot Stuff

In the former Soviet Union, "rad rangers" are racing to find lost radiation devices before terrorists can turn them into "dirty bombs"

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Lerry Meskhi and I walk into the maw of an artificial hill, one of several missile bunkers on this derelict Soviet military base near Tbilisi, the Republic of Georgia’s capital. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, we follow rusty train tracks into pitch-black catacombs. Using a flashlight and feeling a touch of trepidation, I peer into one of the room-size chambers off the trackway. It’s empty, the warheads, reportedly nuclear missiles once pointed at Turkey, long gone. Still, the old Soviet spirit lingers in yellow Russian signs on the concrete walls. “Operations shall be carried out only on command,” says one. “Do not allow the product to be hit,” says another. But Meskhi, chief of Georgia’s Nuclear and Radiation Safety Service, isn’t interested in Cold War signage. He’s searching for other things the Soviets might have left behind, and he’s hoping to get to them before others do.

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He walks out of the dark bunker and into the sunlight, blinking like a mole. A gray-haired, cherub-faced 56-year-old, Meskhi is a local leader of the international effort to hunt down radioactive relics scattered across the frontier of the former USSR. Georgia and other nations, including the United States, are concerned that terrorists could rig stray radioactive materials to conventional explosives to create a “radiation dispersal device,” also known as a dirty bomb.

 

As far as anyone knows, a dirty bomb has never been detonated. But the Justice Department said last June that U.S. agents had foiled an alleged Al Qaeda plan to obtain materials for a dirty bomb to be set off on U.S. soil. And the BBC reported in late January that British officials have evidence that Al Queda operatives in western Afghanistan had succeeded in building a dirty bomb. At its worst, some experts say, a dirty bomb attack might be comparable to a radiation accident, perhaps like the one in Brazil in 1987, when more than 200 people were exposed—4 fatally—to radioactive cesium 137 from an abandoned radiation therapy machine. Also, U.S. Army medical planners say that a dirty bomb could make victims more susceptible to a subsequent biological or chemical weapon, because exposure to large amounts of ionizing radiation can suppress the immune system.

 

But assessing the consequences of a detonated dirty bomb is difficult. Some security experts say it would probably not expose many people to a deadly or harmful dose of radioactivity; that is, the injuries would be from the blast itself. Instead, they say, dirty bombs are designed to generate panic, preying on people’s fear of all things radioactive, and to contaminate buildings or neighborhoods, which might have to be decontaminated or razed at great expense. As one journalist put it, a dirty bomb is a weapon not of mass destruction but mass dislocation. A University of Rochester radiation safety expert estimates that more people would be killed in car accidents fleeing a dirty bomb blast in a panic than would be harmed by the unloosed radiation. “We should keep our eye on the ball,” says Matthew Bunn, a nonproliferation expert at HarvardUniversity’s BelferCenter for Science and International Affairs. “Radiological terrorism could be expensive to clean up, but it would not mean tens of thousands of people dead and the heart of a major city incinerated in a flash, as would terrorist use of an actual nuclear weapon.”

 

Nonetheless, many nations as well as scientific and political organizations view the dirty bomb threat as credible and grave. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a United Nations body that serves as the world’s nuclear watchdog, has in recent years dispatched officials and technicians to more than two dozen nations to secure orphaned radiation sources, including abandoned military and agricultural equipment. In Georgia, which has been in the forefront of radiation-hunting by former Soviet states, technicians have scoured urban areas and abandoned military bases—around 15 percent of the country—gathering up some 220 orphaned radioactive objects. Most, like rifle scopes that contain a trace of radium, were trivial; but some, including radioactive generators that nearly killed three civilians, were diabolically hot.

 

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