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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By the time Goiás authorities brought the situation under control several weeks later, 249 people were found to be contaminated, and the 10 most serious patients were transported to Rio de Janeiro for treatment. The 6-year-old girl was severely ill for a month—dead patches of skin on her hands, hair falling out, capillaries rupturing, infections raging in her lungs and kidneys—before she died.


The accident is not a precise model of what would happen after a dirty bomb exploded, partly because, Bunn says, the victims received very high radiation doses after spreading the cesium on themselves. But, he adds, the high cost of decontaminating the area and the large numbers of worried but unexposed people who showed up at hospitals seeking treatment are possible consequences of a dirty bomb attack.


The incident, classified as one of the worst radiation accidents in history, prompted the IAEA to develop new guidelines for the handling and disposing of radiation sources. The agency is revising those guidelines nowadays in the light of terrorists’ threats and their willingness to sacrifice their own lives in carrying them out. It hopes to aid civil defense planners by describing the terrorist potential of different radiation sources; for instance, even though cesium 137 is no more potent than, say, cobalt 60, it’ll be classified as a more significant terrorist threat because it’s easier to disperse. The IAEA acknowledges that some people may consider the new guidelines too explicit, constituting, as some officials half-jokingly put it, “an Osama bin Laden manual.” But an IAEA official says that it is vital to make such information available so security and health planners can counter the dirty bomb threat. In contrast, the official adds, Al Qaeda “doesn’t need information. It needs opportunity.”


Near the end of my Georgia trip, Tavartkiladze, of the Environment Ministry, agrees to take me to a facility in which the six recovered strontium canisters and four Gamma Kolos containers—among the most dangerous radioactive orphans on earth—are being stored, on the condition I not reveal the facility’s name or location. 



Our van pulls onto a dirt road that wends through farmland dotted with livestock and ramshackle barns. Finally, we stop at a padlocked iron gate and Meskhi jumps out to chat with a guard, a gangly young man who does not appear to be armed. He unlocks the gate, and we pass through. A few minutes later, our van parks near a barn-size concrete shed with a steel door. Inside are two, 10-foot-deep concrete chambers; one is covered by a thick concrete lid. The other is open.


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