News broke on February 17 that three containers of radioactive Cesium-137 were lost last December from the former Soviet military base of Vaziani in Kvemo Kartli region, near Tbilisi.
International sources, including US Food and Drug Administration indicate that Cesium-137 is of particular concern because it is a potential component of a conventional explosive device – a “dirty bomb” containing radioactive material. Experts say the missing substance cannot be processed in Georgia and might be sold abroad.
A criminal case was opened in connection with the incident under the part one of the Article 231 of the Criminal Code – Illegal Export of Radioactive Substances. The article considers 5 years of imprisonment for such crime. The punishment may extend to 8 years of imprisonment if vile use of the substance is proven.
It has not been yet defined when exactly the containers disappeared from the base. “We do not have any suspects yet, since the military patrol of the base was changing every day and we do not have neither the exact date of theft, nor the eyewitnesses,” Mamuka Tsaava, Chief Military Prosecutor of Kvemo Kartli region told Civil Georgia. The Georgian authorities also refrain to name the possible motivation for theft.
Chief Military Prosecutor of the Kvemo Kartli region says that the substance is commonly used in medicine and chemical industry. He also said that Cesium-137 could be used to produce “dirty” radioactive bomb. It was not clarified if the missing amount of Cesium would be sufficient for creating such a device.
Irakli Aladashvili, military observer of the “Weekly Palette” newspaper, told Civil Georgia that he did not rule out that “Cesium was stolen with purpose to assemble the “dirty” bomb”.
But the experts also say Cesium-137 cannot be used it in Georgia. “This substance can not be processed in Georgia, as there are no relevant facilities here. Nobody will buy it in Georgia either,” Leri Meskhi, head of the Radioactive Security Division of the Environment Ministry told Civil Georgia. “The only explanation to the theft is that somebody will try to sell it abroad,” he added.
Cesium-137 has very intense radioactive emission and can cause irreversible damage. Leri Meskhi says, however that Cesium-137 could be dangerous only in case of direct contact with the body.
“Only one container out of three holds substance with intense radiation. However, handling of all three requires special skills,” Leri Meskhi told Civil Georgia.
Leri Meskhi said that containers were supposed to be moved to a special warehouse, but due to absence of such storage facilities in Georgia, containers remained at the base under the increased security. Cesium-137 was stored in the special containers 2 meters below the surface.
The State Security Ministry also had information about existence of this substance in the base; however the Ministry refrained to comment its disappearance.
The Russian military were stationed at Vaziani military base until 2001, when it was handed over it to Georgia. However, Cesium-137 was not mentioned in the documents, by which the transfer of the base took place between the Russian and Georgian sides.
“I do not know why Russians concealed this fact. I did not rule out that this was done deliberately, but it is hard to name the real motive,” Mamuka Tsaava said.
Along with the former Soviet military bases there are several areas in Georgia, where radioactive sources remain.
“Local residents report possible presence of radioactive substances in Svaneti, near breakaway Abkhazia. But investigation of that area is impossible due to the high insecurity in the region,” Meskhi said.
Absence of the special storage facilities in Georgia increases concern regarding the dispersed radioactive materials in Georgia.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) together with the US administration is actively involved in solving this problem.
“I'm proud that we're continuing to assist Georgia in improving the security of their radioactive sources,” US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said on January 29.
Leri Meskhi said that 3-day meeting with the IAEA experts was held in Tbilisi in February to discuss security mechanisms for storing radioactive materials in Georgia. The sides pointed out three main directions of activities, such as construction of a special storage facility, search for sources of radiation and training of personnel, which will be handling the material.
By Tea Gularidze, Civil Georgia
For more detailed information on Cesium 137 and the threats associated with similar fissile material, read the interview with Abel Gonzalez, Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety published by The Economist on 15 June 2002.