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Georgian Authorities Thwart Attempt to Transport Plutonium from Azerbaijan to Georgia

Abstract:

On 15 June 2007, the radiation portal monitor at the Red Bridge port of entry on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border registered higher than normal radiation from a Mercedes cargo truck entering Georgia from Azerbaijan.[1,2,3] During the subsequent inspection of the truck, which was loaded with stainless steel scrap metal, Georgian border police officers discovered a plutonium-beryllium source in a metal pipe.[1,2] The border police notified the Special Operations Center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia (MIA) and the Ministry of Environment Protection and Natural Resources (MEPNR) of the discovery.[1,3] The MIA and MEPNR dispatched specialists to the scene, who confirmed that the radiation level in the proximity of the radioactive pipe was indeed elevated to 300 neutrons per second.[1,2,4,5] The MIA and MEPNR jointly decided to return the cargo truck to Azerbaijan and to inform the Azerbaijani authorities of the incident.[2,3]

On 18 June 2007, the press service of the National Border Police of Georgia (NBP) issued a press release providing further details on the incident. According to the NBP press release, the driver of the cargo truck was a Georgian citizen and the documents accompanying the scrap metal shipment were in order. The truck was carrying different types of scrap metal, including metal pipes described as having been used for logging oil wells, one of which emitted radiation.[2,3]

Editor’s Note: Plutonium-beryllium (Pu-Be) neutron sources, or “neutron cannons,” as they are sometimes called, can either use plutonium-239 or plutonium-238 because both of these isotopes emit alpha particles which interact with beryllium to generate neutrons. Pu-Be sources used in oil well-logging applications typically employ Pu-238, which is not useful for nuclear weapons. However, several grams of Pu-238 could fuel a potent “dirty bomb.” Pu-Be sources used to produce neutrons for applications other than well-logging tend to use a minuscule amount of Pu-239, the isotope useful for nuclear weapons production, as the principal plutonium isotope in a mixture containing small amounts of other plutonium isotopes. A nuclear weapon would typically require several kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium.

Soso Kakushadze, the head of the Nuclear and Radioactive Safety Service at the MEPNR, told the Reuters news agency that Georgia decided to return the cargo truck to Azerbaijan to avoid the extra expenditures associated with the storage or neutralization of the radioactive source.[4,6] However, NBP head Badri Bitsadze provided another, rather unusual explanation in an interview with the Tbilisi-based Imedi television channel. Bitsadze stated that there was no radioactive substance in the truck and that the radiation portal monitor reacted to the elevated background radiation level in the truck. “If this was indeed a case of illegal import of radioactive substance, then a criminal case would have been launched and there would have been an investigation,” Bitsadze explained.[7] The MIA provided no details about the truck’s owner or who was the intended recipient of the scrap metal shipment.[4,5] When contacted, the Ministry of Emergencies of Azerbaijan could not provide any additional comments regarding this incident.[4] According to the Azerbaijani online news agency Day.Az, the radioactive pipe could have been included in the scrap metal shipment by accident. The fact that the Azerbaijani border guards did not intercept it can be explained by the absence of the radiation control equipment on the Azerbaijani side of the border. [Editor’s Note: On 21 December 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the governments of Georgia and Azerbaijan signed agreements to install radiation detection and integrated communications equipment at multiple border crossings, airports, and seaports throughout the two countries. This agreement was part of the NNSA’s Second Line of Defense Program. Once in place, as illustrated in this case, the special equipment could prevent this type of undetected transport of radioactive items.][4,5,8]

Sources:

[1] “Predotvrashchena popytka vvoza plutoniya iz Azerbaidzhana v Gruziyu” (An attempt to bring in plutonium from Azerbaijan to Georgia is thwarted), Day.Az, 18 June 2007, http://www.day.az.
[2] “Pogranichniki utochnili detali popytki vvoza v Gruziyu radioaktivnogo loma” (Border guards clarified details of an attempt to smuggle radioactive scrap metal to Georgia), Information-Analytical Web Portal Gruziya Online, 20 June 2007, http://www.apsny.ge.
[3] “Border Police Detects ‘Radioactive Scrap Metal’ at Azeri Border,” Civil Georgia, UNA-Georgia Online Magazine, 20 June 2007, http://www.civil.ge/eng.
[4] “Radioaktivnyy gruz smog peresech azerbaydzhanskuyu granitsu iz-za otsutstviya neobkhodimogo oborudovaniya u pogranichnikov” (Radioactive cargo could cross the Azerbaijani border because the border guards did not have the necessary equipment), Day.Az, 20 June 2007, http://www.day.az.
[5] “Sluchay s perevozkoy plutoniya cherez azerbaydzhanskuyu granitsu obyasnyaetsya otsutstiyem spetsoborudovaniya” (The case with the transportation of plutonium across the Azerbaijani border can be explained by the absence of special equipment), Novosti-Gruziya News Agency, 20 June 2007, http://www.newsgeorgia.ru.
[6] Nidal al-Mughrabi, “Georgia Finds Plutonium on Azeri Border, Sends Back,” Reuters, 20 June 2007, http://www.reuters.com.
[7] Vsevolod Yaguzhinskiy, “Gruziya oprovergayet informatsiyu o vvoze radioaktivnykh veshchestv” (Georgia denies information on import of radioactive substances), Novyy Region News Agency, 21 June 2007, http://www.nr2.ru.
[8] “U.S. Works with Georgia and Azerbaijan to Stop Nuclear and Radioactive Material Smuggling,” 21 December 2005, U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration website, http://www.nnsa.doe.gov/docs/newsreleases/2005/ PR_2005-12-21_NA-05-35.pdf. {Entered 09/11/07 AL}

Abstract Number:  20070150
Headline:  Georgian Authorities Thwart Attempt to Transport Plutonium from Azerbaijan to Georgia
Date:  11 September 2007
Orig. Src.:  "Review of Incidents Involving Radioactive Materials in the NIS," International Export Control Observer, Issue 11, June/July 2007
Material:  Plutonium; Waste/Scams/Contaminated Materials

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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This article is part of a collection examining reported incidents of nuclear or radioactive materials trafficking in or originating from the Newly Independent States.

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