'Hot' Legacy Raises Alarm in the Caucasus

Hot.The first effort to retrieve Georgian radioactive canisters (inset) was stymied by deep snow.

VIENNA--In a scene that sounds straight out of a James Bond movie, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) dispatched a team yesterday to a remote area near Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region in an attempt to prevent highly radioactive containers from falling into the hands of nuclear terrorists. The team will help local officials secure the dangerous, portable objects.

The 11 September attacks have heightened fears of terrorists using radioactive materials, from discarded medical isotopes to uranium mining tailings, to make "dirty bombs" that could spread radioactivity over large areas. Abandoned radioactive sources are a particular problem in Georgia. For example, in 1998 a man found a radioactive container in a riverbed in northern Georgia; it was later determined to be packed with strontium-90 emitting a whopping 40,000 curies of radiation, equivalent to the radiation from strontium-90 released during the 1986 Chernobyl explosion and fire.

The latest crisis began in December when three men gathering wood near Lja, also in northern Georgia, found two containers that appeared to have melted the nearby snow. Lugging the containers back to their campsite for warmth, the men soon started vomiting, and within a week they developed radiation burns on their backs. Abel Julio González and his colleagues in IAEA's division of radiation and waste safety later learned that Soviet labs probably produced several hundred of these containers--it's not known exactly when--and used them to generate electricity, possibly to power remote radio transmitters. Few have since turned up.

An urgent appeal from the Georgian government prompted IAEA to dispatch a team to recover the two objects; that group arrived in the capital, Tbilisi, on 27 January. Meanwhile, officials from IAEA and Georgia, France, Russia, and the United States are expected to meet in Tbilisi on 4 February to review the recovery effort and discuss the lingering threat of other abandoned radioactive sources.

Radiation injuries from such sources are "a very real problem," says George Vargo of the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. But the Georgian men being treated for severe x-ray burns are the first confirmed victims of the Soviet thermogenerators. Although much of the strontium-90 from the containers could be stored as radioactive waste, the IAEA is also considering selling some of it to hospitals as a source of the short-lived daughter isotope yttrium-90, an experimental treatment for cancer and arthritis.

Related sites
International Atomic Energy Agency
Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers
Federation of American Scientists

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