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The East: Radioactive Scrap Creates Problems For Western Europe

By Mike Leidig

Vienna, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Western European authorities are growing increasingly concerned about illegal trafficking in radioactive scrap metal from Russia and other former communist states.

Helmuth Boek of the Vienna-based Austrian Atomic Research Facility says the movement of contaminated scrap is a major, and worsening, problem. He says the ruble's continuing fall is making the criminals who organize this trade ever more desperate to increase their sales.

Boek says that an international working group will convene in Dijon, France, on September 14. It will consider proposals to equip all border crossing points with automatic detectors. He says rail is the most popular transportation medium for the nuclear scrap.

The dealers in the irradiated metal have been forced to diversify their activities after Finland, the only EU country directly bordering Russia, installed automatic monitoring at all crossing points, as well as Helsinki harbor.

Austria, home of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is situated at the junction of Eastern Europe and the West. It also has intercepted radioactive scrap steel and aluminum, most of which was headed for Italy. Austria plans to install trial detectors at key points this year.

The IAEA says the contaminated metal, most of which comes from decommissioned nuclear power stations, radiation monitoring equipment, and waste containers, is finding its way into metal products, including household items, in Europe.

Hans Meyer of the IAEA says the problem is broadening. In his words: "We get about one case reported every week worldwide, including the first one in Great Britain this year, which shows that this material is going ever further afield."

Some of the material is stolen and, Meyer says, those who initiate its sale know it is dangerous. He says that by the time it has changed hands a few times all indications of its origins have vanished. As he put it: "Only some of the criminals know very well that they are passing on radioactive material. It can be very dangerous and people have died as a result".

Interpol, the international police agency, claims that the ongoing economic crisis in Russia and the plunge of the ruble has increased the attraction of trafficking in contaminated metal to crime syndicates, who are eager to acquire hard currencies.

Exposure to radioactive scrap metal can increase the risk of leukemia and other forms of cancer. The IAEA and other European environmental agencies have called on governments to act quickly.

A British scrap metal merchant recently discovered part of a highly radioactive reactor vessel from a Russian nuclear power station in a shipment of steel. Officials say that it is likely that other shipments of contaminated scrap may have made it past British customs' officers undetected.

Inspecting all scrap metal coming in to Europe is difficult and expensive. Scrapyards and steel works are expected to report to their country's environmental agencies if they find evidence of radiation, but even those willing to comply often don't possess skills or technology for the task.

Detecting the scrap is further complicated because Russian authorities have lost track of location of radioactive materials. The IAEA says there are 100,000 possible sources of radioactive materials unaccounted for in Ukraine alone.

(This is the last of a five-part series dealing with environmental issues in Europe, East and West.)