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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The iaea redoubled its efforts to find radioactive junk after a crisis at a former Soviet military base in Georgia nearly six years ago. During the Cold War, the LiloTrainingCenter, also on the outskirts of Tbilisi, prepared troops for the aftermath of a nuclear strike. Soldiers there conducted undisclosed exercises and tests in a mock postapocalyptic environment. Soon after Georgia’s independence, Russia transferred the barracks to the Georgian Army, which used it as a training camp for border guards. Then, beginning in April 1997, several recruits began to suffer intermittent nausea, vomiting and weakness. Lesions the size of silver dollars appeared on their skin. Not until a 20-year-old soldier lost 30 pounds over several months, while at the same time his fingers began shriveling, did physicians diagnose radiation syndrome.


Searching Lilo for the radioactive culprits, scientists working with the Georgian Army turned up scores of them. Among them were a dozen teakettle-size containers of cesium 137, an emitter of gamma radiation, and a capsule of concentrated cesium 137 not much bigger than a Tic Tac, found in a soldier’s jacket pocket. Meskhi says the Soviets had used those items to calibrate radiation monitors, but others say they aren’t sure about that. In any event, all 11 young border guards exposed to the radiation had to undergo painful operations in which large patches of dead skin and flesh were cut away. But they all survived. “This is when we first realized we had a serious problem with orphan [radiation] sources,” says Zurab Tavartkiladze, first deputy minister of Georgia’s Environment Ministry.


Yet another eye-opening radiation accident occurred in Georgia a few years later. On a frigid December afternoon in 2001, three men gathering wood near the InguriRiver in northern Georgia encountered a pair of canisters the size of paint pails. The objects, oddly hot to the touch, had melted surrounding snow. The men settled down for the night by the canisters, as though by a fire. They could not have known that their makeshift heaters were packed with strontium 90, an emitter of beta and gamma radiation.


Within hours they felt nauseated, grew dizzy and started vomiting. Soon their skin started to peel—radiation burn. A stream of beta particles, or electrons, from the strontium had destroyed their skin, while x rays and gamma rays had blasted the underlying tissue. Their wounds festered. Back in Tbilisi, physicians faxed an urgent plea to the IAEA headquarters in Vienna for help securing the devices. “My shock was so great when I learned how radioactive these sources are,” says Abel Julio González, director of radiation and waste safety at the IAEA. The canisters found in Georgia were highly radioactive, on the order of 40,000 curies apiece—about 40 times the output of a radiation therapy machine.


González and colleagues, who immediately realized that the canisters held the makings of a potent dirty bomb, were alarmed by what they later learned about the Soviet-era devices, which powered electrical generators in remote locales and have been largely unknown to Western nuclear authorities until recently. In the generators, high-energy beta particles shed by the strontium 90 slammed into the walls of a titanium-based ceramic receptacle; some energy was shed as x rays and some as heat, warming the ceramic to around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. A transformer converted the heat to electricity. The IAEA says it has captured all six of the strontium 90 generators that it believes were in Georgia, which the Soviets used to power radio transmissions.


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