Combing For Nukes

The hunt had been on for a month, held back by heavy snow and inaccessible mountain terrain. Finally, last week, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a team of local and international nuclear experts secured two highly lethal, radioactive canisters on a mountainside close to the province of Abkhazia, where local nationalists are fighting for independence. The last stretch up a remote logging road took five hours because the heavy military truck carrying a five-ton lead container came close to sinking into deep mud. At the end of the road, two dozen men in heavy protective gear wielding six-foot tongs carefully picked up the two ceramic cylinders, each no bigger than a can of soup, and placed them safely into the lead container. The canisters were so deadly that each man was allowed to spend no more than a minute standing near them, and even so was not allowed within a meter.

This disturbing find is the latest wrinkle in efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. The canisters are nuclear batteries that once powered a Soviet radio transmitter, now abandoned, on an all but inaccessible mountaintop in Georgia. What worries Western intelligence officials is that Soviet engineers used hundreds of similar batteries as power sources for remote construction projects or military installations throughout the former empire. When the Soviet Union collapsed, records of many of these batteries disappeared, especially in the now independent republics such as Georgia. In the wrong hands, warns the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, these orphaned batteries could be a potent tool to incite panic, contaminate property and cause injury and death. "Before September 11, we thought the deadliness of handling intensely radioactive material was an effective deterrent," says Abel Gonzalez, the IAEA's director of radiation and waste safety. "But with terrorists who are both intelligent and willing to give up their lives, we're facing a far more dangerous situation."

Luckily, the material in these batteries isn't weapons grade--it cannot be manipulated to create a nuclear explosion. Each of the batteries found last week contains strontium 90, a byproduct of nuclear reactions that is extremely radioactive. Last December, three intrepid villagers hiking in the woods noticed that the batteries had melted the surrounding snow. The hikers lugged the batteries to their campsite nearby for warmth. Within minutes they got sick. Two remain hospitalized with severe radiation burns; one is in critical condition. At least two similarly powerful batteries are known to still be lost in Georgia; the IAEA and local specialists are scrambling to find them. "We really don't know what else is still out there," says Tom McKenna, an IAEA adviser who just returned from Georgia.

This kind of low-grade radioactive material is especially worrisome because it can be used to build a so-called dirty nuke--a crude bomb that uses conventional explosives to scatter radioactive material over a wide area. Such a bomb may not be particularly deadly--the lethality of radioactive material drops rapidly when it's dispersed--but it could sow panic. "The effects of a dirty bomb would be relatively harmless in terms of human life," says Gonzalez. "But psychologically it could create great terror." It did in the Brazilian town of Goiania. In 1987, scrap collectors scavenging an abandoned radiological clinic found a few grams of cesium 137, chopped it into pieces and gave it to their friends. In all, 249 people were exposed and four died. Officials had to monitor more than 110,000 residents for months, destroy 85 contaminated houses and collect several tons of contaminated clothing and furniture. A dirty bomb could have similar consequences. Not only would it require little expertise to make, but radioactive material can be found in tens of thousands of sources around the world--in devices or chemical brews used for radiotherapy, food preservation or power.

For now officials are holding the recovered batteries at a secret location in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, until representatives from the United States, Russia, France, Germany and Georgia can agree on a plan to dispose of them. Experts at the IAEA are continuing their hunt of the remaining orphaned Soviet batteries. Russia's nukes are reasonably well monitored, and Georgia is fully cooperating with the IAEA. But the agency has little or no contact with neighboring countries like Turkmenistan, Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, where many more batteries have been abandoned. With their majority-Muslim populations, these countries are also considered targets for the type of Islamist insurgency sponsored by Al Qaeda. If the countries themselves don't ask for help, the IAEA has no authority to act on its own. EU governments have suggested granting the agency this authority, but many countries, including the United States and China, are leery of multinational controls. Right now, the IAEA's Gonzalez says, the only hope is that the good guys find the orphaned sources before the bad guys do.