Volgograd Police Hunt for Stolen Cesium-137

Publish date: May 18, 1998

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

Six containers with radioactive Cesium-137 were stolen from a LUKoil refinery in Volgograd on May 7. Hundreds of police and civil defence personnel have been searching for the highly radioactive material this weekend.

– Each of the 150-kilogram containers holds a single capsule with about one cubic centimetre of Cesium-137. If taken out of its containers, the capsule can radiate up to 400 roentgens per hour, says Pyotr Lazarev at the police headquarters in Volgograd in an interview with The Moscow Times. This can cause serious harm or even death to anyone coming into close contact with it.

The Cesium was used in electronic equipment that monitors chemical processes inside the oil refinery. The police have identified a circle of suspects, possibly employees at the LUKoil refinery. A police source in Volgograd says the thieves could well try to sell the isotopes abroad. Many countries do not produce Cesium-137, so there is a certain demand on the black market for this isotope, which could be used by terrorists in "dirty-bombs" or other terrorist acts. Cesium-137 is a waste product from nuclear reactors and has a half-life of 37 years.

Numerous containers of radioactive material have disappeared from metallurgy plants and other facilities in the former Soviet Union in recent years. Lack of an inventory makes it extremely difficult to draw up reliable statistics on the amount of nuclear material that disappears. In Russia there is no nation-wide inventory for Cesium-137 and most facilities using this isotope have no means to detect thefts. The theft from Volgograd was the second so far in May this year. Two containers of Cesium-137 were stolen from a cobalt smelter in the southern Siberian republic of Tuva. The containers were recovered on May 6 on the factory grounds. According to the General Prosecutor’s Office in Moscow, at least 10 serious thefts of radioactive material occurred between 1991 and 1994. According to a compilation by the Bellona Magazine, more than 170 attempts to smuggle radioactive material out of the former Soviet Union have been made since 1993. However, this figure is only based on unsuccessful attempts uncovered by the authorities.

Western countries have repeatedly expressed concern about poor security and lack of proper inventories at Russian nuclear storage facilities. Both Finland and Norway have increased their border controls in order to stop possible attempts to smuggle radioactive material. The Finnish border to Russia in the north is equipped with a vehicle monitoring post, while the Norwegian customs officers at the Storskog border post with Russia are equipped with hand-held radiation monitors.