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Radiothermal Generators Containing Strontium-90 Discovered in Liya, Georgia

Abstract:

Three woodcutters were hospitalized with radiation sickness after discovering two strontium-90 sources 27km outside the village of Liya in Tsalenjikha District, Georgia in early December 2001, according to NTV.[1] The radiation was emitted by two cylinders, six inches long and four inches in diameter (15cm long and 10cm in diameter), that contained strontium-90 and were used in radiothermal generators installed in the area during the Soviet era and then abandoned.[2,3,4] According to NTV and Interfax, the three men had broken through the lead, tungsten, concrete, and ferrous layers that shielded the strontium-90, while the New York Times reported that the men found the cylinders laying in the snow.[4,5] According to the Los Angeles Times, the men took the cylinders to their campsite to use as heat sources and became sick within hours from the radiation exposure.[3] They went to the local hospital and were later transferred to a hospital in Tblisi.[3] The Washington Post reported that as of 18 March 2002, one victim had recovered, while the other two remained in hospitals in Moscow and Paris.[8] The Georgian State Security Ministry reported that 20kg of contaminated lead from the batteries' 2000kg lead shielding containers were discovered in a house in Liya, and the three villagers had taken lead from the container over several months for scrap metal and to make small shot for hunting rifles.[2]

According to Interfax, the Georgian State Security Ministry cannot charge the villagers for stealing and destroying state property because of their poor health.[2] NTV reports that the exposed strontium-90 sources emit 35,000Ci each, and can give a fatal dose of radiation in two minutes. Georgia's Ministry of Environmental Protection asked the Finance Ministry to allocate $20,000 to neutralize the sources and $30,000 to treat the three hospitalized villagers.[1] Georgian authorities contacted the IAEA on 24 December 2001 for assistance, and IAEA medical and recovery teams arrived in Georgia on 4 January 2002 to help treat the radiation exposure victims and to safely recover the strontium-90 sources.[4] In January 2002, the recovery team was unable to reach the containers owing to heavy snowfall and the remoteness of the location.[4] The IAEA reported on 4 February 2002 that the recovery team had successfully retrieved the strontium-90 sources, and the Washington Post reported on 18 March 2002 that the sources are in temporary secure storage in Tbilisi, along with four other radiothermal generator cores that have been recovered on Georgian territory since 1998.[6,8]

NTV reported that eight such radiothermal generators were brought to Georgia in the early 1980s to power relay antennas during construction of the Inguri and Khudoni hydroelectric plants, and subsequently abandoned. Six of these have now been recovered by Georgian authorities.[5] Despite a search, however, Interfax reported on 24 January 2002 that Georgian police and the Georgian Environment Ministry have been unable to find the remaining two power generators.[5] According to Georgian Environment Minister Nino Chkhobadze, the Soviet KGB also brought two additional radiothermal generators to a classified location in Georgia, but nothing is known about their current disposition.[5] The New York Times reports that hundreds of Soviet-era radiothermal generators were abandoned in Georgia, though most contain radiation sources much weaker than strontium-90.[4]

U.S. and international officials expressed concern about the radiation sources near Liya because of their potential use by terrorists in radiological weapons. According to an IAEA official, the proximity of the radiation sources to the secessionist Republic of Abkhazia is "clearly a concern."[4] Abel J. Gonzalez, director of the IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety, told the New York Times that the strontium-90 used in the radiothermal generators is in a ceramic form that would be "hard to pulverize into the kind of fine dust needed for the most effective terrorist weapons."[4] He noted, however, that the highly radioactive strontium-90 could be an effective psychological weapon.[4] IAEA experts and Georgian officials held meetings in Tblisi during the week of 4 February 2002 to discuss efforts to recover additional orphaned radiation sources in Georgia and improve the security of radiation sources in Georgia.[4,6]

According to a report published in Aliya on 8 February 2002, an unidentified source from Liya alleged that the three men who found the radiothermal generators had sold scrap metal from the protective lead casing. They were offered $10,000 to recover the generators themselves, which would be transported to Turkey, according to the report.[7]

Abstract Number:  20020030
Headline:  Radiothermal Generators Containing Strontium-90 Discovered in Liya, Georgia
Date:  15 January 2002
Bibliography:   FBIS Document CEP20020115000094
Orig. Src.:   NTV, 15 January 2002
Material:    Radioactive Isotopes

[1] Interfax, http://www.interfax.ru, 8 January 2002; in "Radiation Source in Remote Area of Western Georgia Remains Active," FBIS Document CEP20020108000169.

[2] Interfax, http://www.interfax.ru, 11 January 2002; in "Three Villagers with Radiation Sickness Not to Be Charged with Theft," FBIS Document CEP20020111000038.

[3] Aaron Zitner, "Object Lesson in Nuclear Threat Waits in a Forest," Los Angeles Times online edition, http://www.latimes.com/la-000008137feb01.story, 1 February 2002.

[4] William J. Broad, "In Georgian Region, Race to Recover Nuclear Fuel," New York Times online edition, http://www.nytimes.com, 1 February 2002.

[5] "Georgian Search for Two Missing Atomic Generators is in Vain," Interfax, http://www.interfax.ru, 24 January 2002.

[6] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Upgrading the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources in the Republic of Georgia," 4 February 2002, http://www.iaea.org/worldatom/press/news/geogia_radsources.shtml.

[7] "Po versii gruzinskikh SMI, obnaruzhennaya v Tsalendzhikhskom rayone strontsiyevaya batareya mogla byt zakazana v Turtsii," Interfax, http://www.interfax.ru, 8 February 2002.

[8] Joby Warrick, "Radioactive Devices Left by Soviets Could Attract Terrorists," Washington Post online edition, http://www.washingtonpost.com, 18 March 2002.

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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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