Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
International Partners to Discuss Removing Radiological Materials From Lighthouses
WASHINGTON -- Nonproliferation officials from around the globe are due to gather in Moscow on Friday to discuss continuing efforts to secure energy sources used to power Soviet-built naval structures, including lighthouses, that could be used in a radiological "dirty bomb," Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, March 18).
The International Coordination Working Group on Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators will hear presentations about existing and planned activities through the end of this year to decommission the potentially vulnerable power sources, according to U.S. officials who will participate in the conference.
The generators use radioactive materials, usually strontium 90, to generate heat as they decay. The devices were deployed along the Arctic coast to power unmanned lighthouses and navigation beacons, along with providing reliable energy sources in other remote locations within the former Soviet Union.
Strontium 90 has a half-life of nearly 30 years, reducing the need for maintenance of the generators over extended time periods.
Experts estimate that more than 1,000 radioisotope thermoelectric generators were deployed at lighthouses and land-based navigation sites throughout the existing Russian Federation. Most are owned by the Russian Defense, Transportation and Natural Resources ministries, while others belong to the country's hydro-meteorological service.
U.S. officials believe there are less than 230 generators active today, following years of decommissioning operations.
"This strontium 90 is a material that be used in dirty bombs," said Johnny Almestad, a senior adviser in the Norwegian government. "It represents a risk in the sense that it can pollute the environment and fall into the hands of terrorists who might want to use it in attacks."
Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have long expressed a desire to obtain unconventional weapons such as a radiological dirty weapon, which would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials.
Last year, President Obama hosted the first ever Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. World leaders and representatives from 47 countries and three international organizations unanimously pledged to secure global stocks of vulnerable nuclear material within four years, a linchpin of the president's nonproliferation agenda.
A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency highlights a string of incidents involving radioisotope power materials, including a 2001 case in Georgia in which three men found a pair of unshielded sources. Two members of the group suffered severe radiation sickness and burns, the document states.
The generators "contain a substantial amount of radioactive material and the sources are free for access by malicious intruders intending to used the sources ... for construction of dirty bombs," according to Heikki Reponen, head of expert services at Finland's Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority. "The aging of the sources is also leading to loss of integrity of the protective covers so removal of the sources is highly desirable for them point of view as well."
The radioisotope working group, established in 2008, includes some members of the U.N. nuclear watchdog's Contact Expert Group. That body focuses on international radiological waste projects in Russia, including securing spent nuclear fuel from atomic-powered submarines and surface ships, and removing material from former navy bases for reprocessing.
The working group also includes Russian government agencies that play a role in radioisotope thermoelectric generator activities, including the National Research Center Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, which serves as the lead coordinating organization for the recovery effort.
Officials at the institute did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Friday conference, to be held at the institute, would mark the working group's seventh meeting, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on background because they are not hosting the gathering.
The group meets twice annually to exchange information about projects, coordinate activities among participants and prevent any duplication of efforts, the officials said.
The upcoming meeting is "where the Russians report on the progress from the first part of the year and the plans for the rest of the year," Reponen told GSN this week by e-mail. "Advice is sought in case of possible problems. The donors report on the funding prospects from their respective countries."
He predicted the meeting would deal with both an ongoing project along the Baltic Sea -- funded by France, Norway, Finland and Sweden -- and efforts in the Russian Far East and along the Northern Sea Route, paid for primarily by the United States and Canada. Russia will also discuss its own efforts to recover the power sources.
The Northern Sea Route is a Russian shipping lane that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean along the Arctic coast from Murmansk on the Barents Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait and Far East.
Representatives from all the donor countries plan to attend the Friday meeting, Reponen said, along with Russian agencies including: the Kurchatov Institute; the Mayak Combine, which is located in the Urals and where the radioactive heat sources are ultimately eliminated; the Hydrographic Service of the Baltic Fleet; and the Scientific and Research Institute of Technical Physics and Automation.
Technicians and engineers involved typically survey each site where the radioisotope thermoelectric generators are said to be located before recovery operations begin to ensure the power source is still there and to check for any significant damage, including radiation leaks.
They then develop a detailed proposal on how they will extract the generator, which can vary greatly in size and weight. Once officials have determined the cost and scope of the recovery operation, a team of Russian specialists disconnects the unit from the lighthouse or beacon and transports it, often via helicopter, to a consolidation point.
From there, the generator itself is taken to Moscow to be disassembled and then its radioactive power source is later disposed of at the Mayak Combine.
The length of each operation depends on available funding and the time of year, with the spring and fall being the best period to recover the generators because of the harsh weather conditions in some of Russia's more isolated regions.
The average cost for each operation is roughly $200,000, according to U.S. officials, though Moscow once spent more than $2 million to recover one of the larger power sources.
Efforts to Date
Norway in 1997 launched the first industrial project with Moscow to help recover and remove 180 radioisotope thermoelectric generators from the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions of northwest Russia, according to Almestad. That initial effort cost Norway roughly $32 million, he noted.
As the Barents Sea effort began to wind down a few years ago, the Norwegian-Russian collaboration continued into the Baltic Sea area, where generators are to be removed and recovered from 87 lighthouses in the Baltic Sea, he said during a phone interview from Oslo.
Since those installations were spread from the Kaliningrad region to the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, Norway proposed that Sweden and Finland help fund the roughly $20 million effort, Almestad told GSN.
Helsinki and Oslo signed a memorandum of understanding in 2009 under which Finland would allocate more than $2 million to the effort through 2011, according to Reponen.
Finland to date has provided more than half of the obligated funds to the effort. The last installment is expected to be delivered near the end of the calendar year, though transporting the generators to Moscow and the radiological sources to the Mayak Combine is likely to continue into 2012, he said.
Of the 71 power sources covered in the Norwegian-Finnish agreement, 32 have been removed to date from lighthouses, Reponen said in his message. Alternative power sources, either solar panels or nickel-cadmium battery packs, will be installed at 56 of the structures.
France committed to remove the power sources from the remaining 16 lighthouses through its own bilateral program with Russia, he added.
Radioactive power sources in the lighthouses in the waters of three Baltic countries -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- were removed immediately after those nations gained their independence in 1991, according to Reponen.
Almestad said Norwegian officials would meet with their Russian counterparts this August to discuss the completion of Oslo's involvement in the Baltic Sea, scheduled for 2012.
Meanwhile, the United States has helped fund the recovery of 273 radioisotope generators since 2002, mainly through the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration's high-profile Global Threat Reduction Initiative.
That program aims to track down, protect and eliminate potential radiological and nuclear-weapon materials internationally.
U.S. officials estimate that based on discussions with their Russian counterparts there are fewer than 230 radioisotope generators deployed today, with 172 remaining in the Northern Sea Route. They predicted the threat reduction effort would recover 64 more before the end of fiscal 2011.
The officials would not speculate when the full effort would be completed. However, they noted, the United States, Norway and Russia have confirmed plans to continue the work, though it remains uncertain whether past donors, including France and Canada, would provide additional funding for such activities in the future.
The threat reduction effort "is a critical program in the NNSA's effort to implement the President Obama's unprecedented nuclear security agenda," agency spokesman Bill Gibbons told GSN on Tuesday by e-mail.
"The NNSA is committed to continued collaboration with our international partners to identify, remove and secure high-risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials worldwide," he added.
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