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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We walk on a wooden plank and step onto the concrete lid. In the chamber below are the strontium canisters. “Radiation levels here are at background levels,” Meskhi says, clearly hoping to be reassuring.


In the open chamber are what look like miniature lunar landers. The metal objects, three gray and one white, are about a yard and a half tall and two feet wide; each squats on spindly legs attached to the body by a metal girdle. They are the Gamma Kolos containers, laden with cesium 137. A heavy concrete lid will eventually cover this chamber, too, says Meskhi. I’m pretty sure I’m not in any danger—all that cesium is shielded by the containers’ lead lining—but it’s spinechilling all the same.


As our van rumbles away from this secret site, I feel reasonably assured that the Georgian-IAEA team has rooted out the radiological fugitives in Georgia. But I wonder about other places in the old Soviet empire and about whether the authorities, or terrorists, are rounding up lost or forgotten radiation sources.

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