Select Page Hunting a Deadly Soviet Legacy Concerns About ‘Dirty Bomb’ Drive Efforts to Find Radioactive Cesium

By Joby Warrick Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, November 11, 2002; Page A01

TBILISI, Georgia — In the 1970s, scientists in the former Soviet Union developed scores of powerful radioactive devices and dispatched them to the countryside for a project known cryptically as Gamma Kolos, or “Gamma Ears.” Its purpose: to deliberately expose plants to radiation and measure the effects.

Some of the tests were aimed at simulating farming conditions after a nuclear war. In rugged eastern Georgia, researchers bombarded wheat seed with radiation to see if the plants would grow better. All the experiments used a common source of radiation, a lead-shielded canister containing enough radioactive cesium 137, U.S. officials now say, to contaminate a small city.

The experiments stopped long ago, but last year’s terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon have kindled an intense interest in Gamma Kolos that revolves around a single question: Where’s the cesium now?

Spurred by fears of a “dirty bomb” attack that could spread radioactive poisons across major cities, U.S. and international nuclear experts have begun quietly searching former Soviet republics to recover the remains of the Gamma Kolos project before someone else does.

Unknown in the West until recently, the Soviet project is viewed as especially dangerous because its cesium devices could be easily exploited for terrorism: small, portable and possessing a potent core of cesium chloride in the form of pellets or, more frequently, a fine powder. Cesium 137, a silvery metal isotope used commonly in medical radiotherapy, emits powerful gamma radiation and has a half-life of three decades.

“It’s like talc — extremely dispersible,” said Abel Gonzales, director of radiation and waste safety for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations-chartered nuclear watchdog. “You don’t even need a bomb. Just open a can and people will die.”

With heightened urgency and new backing from the U.S. Energy Department, the IAEA led a 10-month sweep of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, now a troubled but independent state. The search turned up five of the Gamma Kolos devices, all of which are now in safe storage. Four more devices have been found in Moldova, while in Russia U.S. officials are helping to construct security systems for agricultural research centers where large quantities of powdered cesium are stored.

But elsewhere across the old Soviet empire, the search is hampered by a lack of funding and a dearth of information. None of the cesium devices is known to have been stolen, but in some Central Asian states there are no records showing how many of the devices exist or what has happened to them. Estimates of the total number of devices are vague — “anywhere from 100 to 1,000,” not counting stocks of cesium in loose storage in Russia, a senior IAEA official said.

Russia is beginning to cooperate in the search, although it cannot yet account for all the cesium, Bush administration officials said.

“I can tell you the Russians themselves are very worried about the cesium that’s still out there in some of the [former Soviet] republics,” a top official of the U.S. Nuclear Security Administration said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

At least some of the republics share that concern. In Georgia, officials are combing the countryside with radiation detectors following a string of accidents in which civilians stumbled upon abandoned radioactive devices and suffered severe radiation burns. In at least one instance, the radioactive device had drawn the interest of local businessmen who were hoping to sell it on the black market, according to U.S. and Georgian government officials.

“We’re not a nuclear country, yet we have these problems with nuclear material,” said Zurab Tavartkiladze, Georgia’s deputy environmental minister. “How many more are out there? We don’t know, because we don’t know how many existed to start with.” ‘Dirty Bomb’ Concerns

While the United States has spent billions of dollars in the past decade helping secure or destroy Soviet-era nuclear and chemical weapons, only since September 2001 has the U.S. effort expanded to include nonfissile radioactive material such as cesium 137. The interest first arose from intelligence reports last fall that al Qaeda terrorists were exploring the use of radiological weapons known as dirty bombs. It grew with the discovery by U.S. troops of detailed bomb-building instructions in Afghan caves used by al Qaeda forces. In June, the threat became personal for many Washingtonians when the Justice Department announced it had foiled an alleged al Qaeda plot to explode such a device in a U.S. city, possibly the capital.

The concerns prompted Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham in September to call for a global housecleaning to find and secure material that could be used in dirty bombs — a threat that was made “horrifyingly clear” by the events of the previous 12 months, he said.

“After September 11 [2001], there could be no doubt, if there ever was one, that terrorists would use nuclear materials to harm innocent citizens of the civilized nations of the world — if they could acquire them,” Abraham said.

Although far less lethal than traditional nuclear weapons, dirty bombs could be attractive to terrorists because they can inflict widespread disruption for relatively little cost. With conventional explosives and a few ounces of cesium 137 or strontium 90, a dirty bomb could contaminate large swaths of real estate with dangerous radiation, unleashing panic and rendering some areas uninhabitable for decades.

In a computer simulation of a dirty bomb attack on New York, the detonation of 3,500 curies of cesium chloride in Lower Manhattan — about 50 grams or 1.75 ounces — would spread radioactive fallout over 60 city blocks. Immediate casualties would be limited to victims of the immediate blast, but the aftereffects, including relocation and cleanup, would cost tens of billions of dollars, said Michael A. Levi, a physicist and director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Project, which conducted the study.

“The financial costs, from the loss of property to business losses, could be huge,” Levi said. “People may refuse to return, and others may be unwilling to travel to the area. The threshold for scaring people away from some activities is very low.”

Radioactive material for such a bomb can be found in almost every country, including the United States. But terrorists looking for bargains could hardly do better than in the former Soviet Union. The Soviets are known to have produced tens of thousands of radioactive devices for uses ranging from medical diagnostics to military communications, and many were simply abandoned after the Soviet breakup in 1991. Some regions are so littered with such devices that published tourist guides caution travelers to watch out for them.

Nowhere has the problem attracted greater attention than in Georgia, a struggling democracy and staunch U.S. ally in which there have been not only mishaps involving radioactive devices, but documented attempts to steal or smuggle nuclear material. Porous borders with the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become thoroughfares for smuggled contraband from cigarettes to weapons, according to Georgian and U.S. government officials. Four years ago, a sting operation in the port city of Batumi netted three kilograms of enriched uranium — one of the largest seizures ever made of material that could be used in a nuclear bomb.

“Not only is Georgia’s government incapable of stopping this kind of smuggling, but some local officials would no doubt take part in it,” said Mikheil Saakashvili, a parliament member and leader of Georgia’s opposition National Movement party. “There are no resources for monitoring, and the pay for the border guards is $30 to $50 a month.”

To head off future thefts, Georgia last year launched an aggressive campaign to find abandoned radioactive devices and store them in a secure, central location. Last month, dozens of Georgian workers armed with hand-held radiation detectors swept an abandoned Soviet missile base near the capital city of Tbilisi, part of a grid-by-grid search that has now covered 15 percent of the country, including all major population centers.

The search turned up small amounts of cesium 137 and strontium 90: in tools, calibration devices, night-vision equipment. “Most of it was junk,” said Lia Chelidze, the Georgian government’s liaison to the IAEA. But in all, she said, Georgians recovered more than 200 pieces of radioactive equipment during their search, 11 of them with massive radioactive potency.

Of those 11, six were strontium-powered generators once used in military communications equipment. The five other items had been designated for use on farms as part of a project only a few Georgians knew by name: Gamma Kolos. A Lone Sentry

The devices themselves resemble antique milk cans, and for years they were left to rust in sheds owned by Georgia’s agriculture department. Today, a small radiation symbol, visible on some of the devices, offers the only hint of their highly lethal contents.

“That’s 2,100 curies, just there,” said Lerry Meskhi, head of Georgia’s nuclear and radiation safety service, pointing to one of the Gamma Kolos devices soon to be entombed in a freshly dug pit beneath a government storage building. “In this small space, there’s more than 10,000 curies,” or units of radiation, he said.

The measurements were alarming. By comparison, the second-worst civilian nuclear accident — after the 1986 Chernobyl accident — involved a medical radiotherapy machine containing roughly half as many curies of cesium 137. Poor villagers in the Brazilian town of Goiania found the machine in an abandoned clinic in 1987 and broke it apart to salvage the metal. Within days nearly 30 people suffered serious radiation injuries and four of them later died. Hundreds of others were treated for exposure and dozens of houses were demolished in the cleanup.

“Even one curie can cause a lot of harm, but it’s not something that would attract a terrorist,” said the IAEA’s Gonzales. “With 2,000 or 3,000 curies you can do a lot of damage.”

There is no evidence of immediate danger in the rambling government compound where Georgia’s Gamma Kolos equipment is stored. Hidden from public view, the building is in a decaying suburb of the capital, flanked by massive factories that have been idle since shortly after the Soviet collapse more than a decade ago. The few cars that pass must navigate their way around truck-sized potholes and livestock that freely roam the street.

A lone sentry, in civilian clothes and apparently unarmed, guards the roll-away gate to the compound. Georgian officials acknowledge that the real security is in the form of tons of concrete that will seal the devices from intruders, compliments of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Few, if any, officials of the current government were in office when Gamma Kolos was active. Although records are sparse, Georgian environmental officials said the devices were probably built in the 1970s and have lost more than half of their original 4,500-curie strength due to normal atomic decay. The canisters were mounted on tractors and towed directly into fields for planting, they said. Wheat seeds were fed into the machine for a jolt of gamma radiation before being dropped into furrows. “It was supposed to speed up germination and increase yields,” one official said. Whether it worked is unclear; in the West, scientists have used radiation to force mutations in crop strains.

The Soviet practice remains a puzzle to some experts in the West. But at the time, it was deemed successful enough that Soviet scientists sent the devices to other republics, from Moldova to Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. Precise figures are unknown, but IAEA officials say they believe the number of devices in other states is much higher than in Georgia, one of the smallest of the former Soviet republics. “Georgia is a mosquito compared to these other places,” a senior IAEA official said.

In other regions, the devices were buried in fields to test how crops would perform in a radioactive environment, according to U.S. officials familiar with the experiments. More of the devices and large quantities of surplus cesium were kept at Soviet agricultural institutions and in a network of regional radioactive dumps, the officials said.

Energy Department officials said the U.S. government became aware of the problem in the late 1990s but decided to focus on what was regarded at the time as more serious threats: securing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium as well as the vast stocks of Soviet chemical weapons.

“Two years ago, these radiological sources were not even on the horizon,” one Energy Department official said. “But if September 11 taught us anything, it’s that whatever seemed unimaginable before is very much imaginable now.”

With $25 million in new spending approved by Congress and earmarked for the project, U.S. officials are hoping to make rapid progress in locating missing cesium devices and locking them away in vaults such as the one recently built in a Tbilisi suburb. After initial hesitation, Russia this spring formally embraced the effort and pledged full cooperation in helping U.S. and IAEA officials locate missing radioactive devices, including those in other countries.

“The Russians now ‘get it,’ ” a senior Energy Department official said, “and their cooperation is important because they are aware of things that went on in those regions that we don’t know about.”

So far, the Russian cooperation has yet to produce a single document or solid lead. But the recent commitments by the Russian government reflect a growing awareness that dirty bombs are Russia’s problem, too, Abel Gonzales of the IAEA said.

“The attitudes are starting to change, so for the first time we see that we’re all in the same boat,” Gonzales said. “After that, it’s just a matter of going after them, one by one.”

© 2002 The Washington Post Company