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World: Danger Of 'Dirty Bombs' Exacerbated By Old Soviet Generators

  • Jeremy Bransten

The recent discovery of two radioactive generators abandoned in a Georgian forest has raised concerns that similar devices, scattered throughout the former Soviet Union, could attract the attention of terrorists seeking nuclear material for making a crude but highly dangerous bomb. The former Soviet Union is believed to have manufactured some 1,000 radiothermal generators, containing radioactive strontium-90 or plutonium-238, to power lighthouses and communications equipment in remote locations from the Arctic to the Black Sea. Many are now abandoned and unguarded.

Prague, 21 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As terrible as last September's terrorist attack on New York City turned out to be -- destroying the World Trade Center and taking with it the lives of thousands of innocent people -- there is a potential scenario that haunts security experts and politicians even more: the specter of terrorists scattering radioactive particles, using what is known as a "dirty bomb."

A "dirty bomb" is a primitive weapon -- a conventional explosive attached to a small container of plutonium or uranium that does not need to be refined to nuclear-weapon-grade quality. When it explodes, highly potent radiation is dispersed over a relatively small area. But small is a relative concept -- in a tightly packed metropolis like New York, it could mean half the island of Manhattan, the financial and cultural heart of the city.

Arjun Makhijani, president of the U.S.-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, is an expert on nuclear fuels.

"You can think of it more like a chemical weapon where toxic materials are being dispersed that could cause disease, cancer, evacuation, large-scale economic losses, higher risk of diseases and, in high radiation doses, also more immediate health damage. You're not talking about nuclear weapons that would blast whole areas into rubble. That's not the kind of weapon we're talking about here."

Most buildings would be left standing, but the contaminated area would become uninhabitable for decades. Most people exposed to radiation would eventually die of cancer. The economic toll would be incalculable.

Switch scenes to a remote forest in the southern Caucasus republic of Georgia, where two cylinders containing highly radioactive strontium-90 were found by three loggers at the end of last year. The cylinders were so radioactive, in fact, that they had melted the surrounding snow. The loggers developed radiation burns, and experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna were called in to dispose of the objects.

The link between the hypothetical disaster scenario in New York City and the real events that took place in Georgia are what have experts alarmed. This time, scientists were able to reach the radioactive cylinders and dispose of them properly, but what if next time it is not loggers who reach the objects, but terrorists?

Several countries have manufactured radioactive generators, known as radiothermal generators, or RTGs, which run on strontium-90 or plutonium-238. They are highly efficient, compact, and can run for many years. The United States uses them to power certain satellites that it sends into space, for example. But the former Soviet Union was the only state to turn out the generators on a mass scale and put them to use for powering remote lighthouses or communication towers. After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, many of the facilities were abandoned. The generators, with their protective metal casings, became targets for scrap metal thieves.

Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA, explains: "What is unique here is the number of them produced -- we believe there were over 1,000 -- and the fact of the legacy of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, regulatory control broke down and information as to where these sources were, [and the] means and resources to protect them, just weren't there on a national level in the newly independent states. So we have many cases where these sources are just turning up as a military legacy on old military bases or, as in the last case in Georgia, lying in a remote area -- presumably the result of an incident of somebody having stolen the protective shielding for scrap metal and just thrown the things away."

Fleming admits the IAEA has no idea where most of these radioactive nuclear batteries are currently located on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

"We are seeking cooperation with the Russian authorities in order to help identify where these sources possibly could be, and they have been cooperative. One of the problems, as I said, is that some of these places have been abandoned. The scrap metal collectors and people who see a potential profit in this shiny metal that shields these sources come along and that's why they've turned up unshielded, very dangerous in areas that we couldn't find, actually."

So far, cooperation on finding abandoned RTGs has not been formalized within any kind of partnership agreement, such as the ones that exist between Moscow, the United States, and international agencies on monitoring nuclear weapons storage sites. But the IAEA has become sufficiently concerned to make the location of what it calls "orphaned" RTGs one of its top priorities.

Fleming says that "so far, it has just been ad hoc. The IAEA has been the body that has been most prominently involved in the identification and the recovery of sources. This has happened on several other occasions, actually, in Georgia and in other countries. I think the awareness has now been raised that these sources could also be a potential terrorist threat, and for that reason there has been a Board of Governors approval to make this one of the agency's new priorities and that is to help identify and recover and put in proper, secure, safe storage, these abandoned -- and as we call them -- orphaned sources."

If, hypothetically, terrorists were to reach one of the orphaned RTGs before anyone else on the territory of the former Soviet Union, how feasible would it be for them to extract any plutonium or strontium from the cylinder? Fleming says anyone seeking to extract the radioactive substances from the objects would have to be well-trained and might put his or her health at serious risk. But with certain knowledge, the task is feasible.

"They would have to really know what they were doing. The people that the IAEA trained to recover the two sources in Georgia were experts. They were trained for over a week. They wore protective clothing and they used a remote handling device, and they didn't stay close to the source for longer than 40 seconds. So whoever would handle such a source for terrorist purposes would also have to be willing to sacrifice their life, or certainly their health."

But for someone possessing enough skill and dedication, the successful dismantling of a single RTG would bring a rich and lethal harvest. Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research says, "A small, small amount of strontium-90 or plutonium-238 carries on awful amount of radioactivity. One of these RTGs has 40,000 curies of strontium-90, and the amount of strontium-90 you have to have in your lungs to cause a high probability of lung cancer is less than two one-thousandths (.002) of a curie. There's about 10 ounces (284 grams) of strontium-90 in one of these things, and the lethal cancer-causing dose is about one-third of a millionth of an ounce. So you can see that there's an awful lot of radioactive material in these things, and the larger plutonium-238 RTGs carry comparable damage-causing potential."

What makes the potential use of radioactive strontium or plutonium in a dispersal bomb so frightening is that, unlike with biological agents such as anthrax, post-disaster cleanup is, at present, not an option. The after-effects would haunt several generations. Makhijani continues, "The half-life of strontium-90 is 30 years, so it would be for a very long time. The half-life of plutonium-238 is 87 years. And once it is dispersed effectively the cleanup technologies have not been developed, so unlike anthrax, say, when the [U.S.] Senate office building was affected by anthrax, they had some chemical ways to kill all the spores and the building could be reoccupied. If buildings got contaminated [with radiation], for instance -- because radioactivity was dispersed all over the place, if it got into transportation equipment, into cars, buses and so on -- they essentially couldn't decontaminate this stuff at all. You're talking about the potential evacuation of large areas that would then become difficult or impossible to clean up, and the economic damage would be pretty immense."

For now, there is no indication that any terrorist groups have attempted to obtain defunct radiothermal generators from former Soviet territory. But evidence discovered in former Al-Qaeda safehouses in Afghanistan show the terrorists had, at least in theory, considered the option of trying to manufacture a "dirty bomb."

"The New York Times," in an article last year, published extracts from what it said was a top-secret Iraqi report on Baghdad's test of such a weapon in 1987. The paper obtained the report from the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a private group in Washington that said it acquired the document from a United Nations official. David Albright, formerly a nuclear inspector in Iraq, told "The New York Times" he had seen the document and did not doubt its authenticity. According to Baghdad's report, the test was a failure.

It will now be up to the governments of the USSR successor states and the IAEA to quickly locate and collect any stray RTGs on their territory to ensure no group or country has the opportunity to conduct further similar tests.

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