On my trip to Georgia in October, I spent three days with Meskhi and a team of radiation technicians—“rad rangers,” I call them—that searched the countryside and, for the first time, allowed journalists to observe the work. The visit impressed upon me the vast scale of the orphan-radiation problem and the dangers that these ill-paid workers endure to make life a little safer for the rest of us.
Meskhi’s crew—all men—know they’re playing radioactive roulette when they poke into crumbling buildings and wander across rural expanses in pursuit of outdated, perhaps faulty equipment laden with hazardous radioactive compounds. As a hedge against acute radiation illness and possible delayed effects like cancer, each man wears a bright green plastic dosimeter around his neck like a talisman. The device measures cumulative gamma radiation, and when a set limit is reached, a rad ranger’s stint is up. If a team encounters a device that might be potently radioactive, the older workers approach it first, covering it with a lead shield before letting others get close. “When we find big sources, we don’t use young men,” says Giga Basilia of Georgia’s Radiation Service. “They have families to raise.”
As I accompany Basilia and others while they comb the southern perimeter of the Vaziani military base, the crack of gunfire from beyond a nearby hill makes me flinch. Those are practice rounds, Basilia says, from a camp not far away. The U.S. military is training Georgian soldiers reportedly to fight Chechen rebels holed up in the Pankisi Gorge bordering Chechnya. Georgia, which gained independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, has cultivated close ties with the United States, which is seeking to increase its influence in this impoverished region between the Black Sea and the oil-rich Caspian Sea.
“Look at this!” exclaims one of the rangers, who had wandered over to a pit roughly 30 feet wide, half that in depth, and with perhaps a few feet of stagnant water pooled in the bottom. What catches the eye are two rusting aerial bombs and the bottom segment of some sort of finned rocket, all half-submerged like bathing hippos. The usually gregarious Georgians are at a loss for words. I’m looking suspiciously at gas bubbling up near the bombs when Basilia says, “I have no idea what this is. It’s something unusual. We didn’t know these were here.”
One man—wearing, incongruously, a black Pittsburgh Steelers vest—walks over to the pit and lowers a digital Geiger counter on a strap over the edge. It dangles a few yards over the bombs, which, it turns out, are not nuclear arms. “Sixty-five, sixty-four,” he says, reciting the Geiger counter readout. “Very low.”