The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is voicing concern over "orphaned" radioactive sources in the former Soviet states. The agency is calling on those countries to take additional measures to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining radioactive material for so-called dirty bombs. The Central Asian republic of Tajikistan is among the countries that inherited radioactive material from the Soviet era.
Prague, 7 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past 10 years, Tajik journalists and environmental-safety activists have been raising questions about the threat of radiation exposure around the Vostokredmet (Eastern Rare Metals) enterprise and 12 radioactive waste dumps, all in the country's northern Sughd region (oblast).
Until recently, concern about the waste has focused on the health and environmental ramifications. However, in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, organizations such as the IAEA are reevaluating the risks involved.
A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive that is packaged with radioactive material that is dispersed when the bomb explodes, contaminating the surrounding environment.
The threat of dirty bombs and nuclear or radiological terrorism has catapulted the safety issues surrounding radioactive waste and material into the spotlight. The IAEA says such material is sometimes abandoned or falls outside regulatory control due to a lack of monitoring resources in the former Soviet countries.
According to the agency, some of the newly independent states simply do not have the national structures to effectively control the material. The IAEA, along with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry, recently established a special mission to locate, secure, and recycle orphaned radioactive sources throughout the former Soviet countries. Members of the commission have visited radioactive sites in Tajikistan and Moldova.
Vostokredmet was established in the early 1940s in uranium-rich Tajikistan under the supervision of Lawrenty Beria, then the chief of the Soviet secret police. The town of Chkalovsk, which was built around the enterprise, was cordoned off for security and safety reasons. Residents of Chkalovsk enjoyed relatively high living standards throughout the Soviet era.
The first Soviet nuclear bomb was made from Tajik uranium. Today, the country has been left with more than 100 tons of radioactive waste, much of it in dumps close to residential areas.
According to Tajik officials, both Vostokredmet and the radioactive storage facilities are under strict control. However, local media say some of the dumps are not fenced off and that some of the dangerous sites have not been adequately guarded for the past 10 years.
Is there any threat that the radioactive sources in Tajikistan could be smuggled out of the country and used for dirty bombs?
Gordon Lindsey, an expert with the IAEA, told RFE/RL that radioactive sources in Tajikistan have not yet been fully evaluated by the agency: "If the sources are big enough, that means in terms of their activity, in terms of the number of curies [units of radioactivity] and Becquerels [gamma rays given off by radioactive substances] they contain, and depending upon the radionuclide, yes, they could be used for that purpose. But in the case of Tajikistan, I don't think we have a very good understanding at the present time."
Campaigners for environmental and public safety are concerned about the threat these radioactive sites pose to public health. The permissible radiation exposure level in Tajikistan is 57 micro-roentgens per hour. That's quite liberal in comparison to standards in some European countries, where the permissible radiation norm does not exceed 30 microroentgens per hour.
However, according to local specialists, radiation levels in some areas in the Sughd region exceed even the most generous standards by up to 10 times. Alarming levels of radiation have been recorded in the towns of Ghoziyon, Chkalovsk, Taboshar, and Adrasmon.
Local experts say the average radiation level in Taboshar is 50 microroentgens per hour, and that in some areas in the town, the radiation level per hour reaches 350 microroentgens. They claim the radiation level around the radioactive storage facility in Adrasmon reaches up to 500 microroentgens per hour.
Almost all radioactive waste dumps in Tajikistan are located close to residential areas, and residents have little knowledge about the hazards to their health. During Soviet times, the subject of radiation pollution simply did not exist. People living close to the hazardous zones were kept in the dark about the threats.
Khotam Murtazoev is a professor of physics at Sughd University and a veteran campaigner for environmental safety. He said public awareness about the issue in Tajikistan is still very low. He alleged that children play at the waste sites and that sheep, cows, and goats are allowed to graze in the contaminated zones. As a result, contaminated meat and dairy product are sold in local markets.
Some residents of nearby villages dig at the waste sites with spades in a misguided effort to find precious metals to resell.
"Stealing these materials could be very dangerous," Murtazoev said. "We even have some photos [in which] you can see several Kataghan residents who are digging those sites with spades." He said visiting representatives from the IAEA mission measured the dosage of radioactivity the people had received, which exceeded levels considered safe.
Murtazoev said vandalism at the sites poses dangerous, if not lethal, hazards. A special monitoring commission posts warning signs at the storage facilities, but he said local children sometimes damage the signs or point them in other directions.
"We and our colleagues from the regional department for Emergency Situations put signs in the dangerous zones. But when we come back to the sites in a couple of months, we can see some signs have disappeared, while the others are broken or covered with graffiti," Murtazoev said.
Statistics about the numbers of people suffering from radiation exposure have never been made public.
Tajikistan has generally low rates of cancerous diseases. However, according to Bakhtiar Ahmadov, the head of the oncology department at the Sughd regional hospital, the number of patients suffering from various cancers, including skin cancer, is relevantly high in the area. He suspects there is a link between the high radiation levels and the relevantly high rates of the disease among the residents of the region.
Doctors also say it is not always easy to evaluate this type of threat to the public health because exposure to radioactivity does not always show signs in the human body immediately.