Kyrgyzstan border guards on Dec. 31 seized a small delivery of a radioactive substance from a train heading to Iran, Kyrgyz officials announced Wednesday (see GSN, Oct. 1, 2007).
The train stopped and returned to Kyrgyzstan after radiation sensors in Uzbekistan detected the material's presence, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Kyrgyz officials isolated the material and moved it to a special holding area.
"Not quite a bucket load of radioactive waste material was there mixed in with sand, dust and snow," said Almabek Aitikeev, a departmental head at Kyrgyzstan's Emergency Situations Ministry. "We did our work and sealed up the waste on Dec. 31."
Kubanych Noruzbaev, an official with the Kyrgyz Ecology and Environmental Protection Ministry, identified the material as cesium 137, a byproduct of weapons testing and nuclear reactor operation that is commonly used in medical equipment.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said the material could also be used in a radiological "dirty bomb," which would disperse radioactive particles with conventional explosives. The incident calls attention to the vulnerability of dangerous nuclear materials stored throughout the former Soviet Union despite international efforts to secure the nuclear assets, RFE/RL reported.
"It passed through our border, the Kyrgyz border (and) it passed through two border checkpoints in Kazakhstan, entering and exiting (Kazakhstan)," Noruzbaev said. "Only on the territory of Uzbekistan was it discovered, and they (the Uzbeks) sent the train back to us."
The discovery has raised a variety of questions regarding the material's quantity and potency, who ordered its delivery, and how it managed to pass through three border checkpoints before being detected. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also questioned why Kyrgyzstan took nine days to announce the seizure.
Noruzbaev said the material should have been uncovered before it reached Uzbekistan.
"How could it happen that it was not detected when it passed through special checkpoints?" Noruzbaev said. "And even more so, how could a (radioactive) source like cesium 137 or 140 pass (without detection)?" (Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jan. 10).