Russian fighting in Georgia putting area’s nuclear materials stocks in jeopardy for theft

wikimedia commons

Publish date: August 19, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

When the breakaway region of Abkhazia split from Georgia in 1993, the world's only known case of enriched uranium going missing was reported after up to 2 kilograms of extremely dangerous material was stolen from the region's I. Vekua Institute of Physics and Technology in Sukhumi, which is not safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Georgian authorities have previously reported they believe some radioactive materials that had been stored there – including highly enriched uranium – have been sold to terrorists, an assertion the local government in Abkhazia has denied.

There are now fears that the organised criminal gangs that are rife in the region, or even Russian troops themselves, say the Georgians, could exploit the confusion of the current conflict to loot other stocks, officals have told Bellona Web.

Also of security concern and more general environmental worry is Georgia’s unknown quantity of radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs – remotely stationed strontium 90 powered energy stations, which served as navigation beacons.

The Soviet-era nuclear authority Minatom populated remote and coastal areas with these radioactive generators and lost track of thousands of them when the Soviet Union fell.

In the late 90s, Georgian shepherds began turning up with radiation poisoning after warming themselves nears the highly radioactive units, according to Bellona research.

The units are also routinely dismantled for their strontium 90 cores or scrap metal – an eventuality that will likely become reality as the region’s current military crisis with Moscow depends and spreads poverty, Georgian interior ministry and radiation safety authorities told Bellona Web in interviews Monday.

Original theft has security agencies jittery
In 1993, between half a kilogram and 2 kilograms of uranium-235 was taken from a physics institute in Abkhazia’s principal town Sukhumi after scientists fled during fighting, the Independent newspaper and nuclear watchdog agencies reported.

It was not even discovered missing, however, until four years later, in 1997. It has not yet been accounted for, said government officials familiar with the incident.

US and British security services are worried that terrorist organisations could purchase weapons grade uranium in the bustling black market Region of South Ossetia – an eventuality currently compounded by the tense and deadly struggle between Tblisi and Moscow for predominance in the region – and mix it with a detonator as basic as fertiliser to make a deadly device, British defence officials told the Telegraph.

While an estimated 15 kilograms of uranium is needed to make a nuclear bomb just a small amount is needed for an unconventional device – or dirty bomb, which disperses radioactivity over a limited area by using conventional explosives.

No nuke bombs to come, but terrorist weapons likely
"There is no fear of a nuclear bomb coming out of this region but the bigger danger is that a small amount of uranium combined with conventional explosive terrorists could make a dirty bomb that would make an area the size of a square mile unusable for 30 or 40 years," said a Defence Department source in an interview with Bellona Web and the Telegraph.

"The economic impact would be catastrophic."

Long history of nuclear smuggling in conflict zone
The 1993 incident is not the only incident of nuclear theft in the volatile region. Three years ago, a smuggler attempted to sell up to 3kg of uranium in South Ossetia for $1 million per 100 grams to a Turkish buyer. While not enough to make a nuclear device it could have contributed to a dirty bomb.

The ethnic Russian smuggler, from North Ossetia, never had the chance to sell the entire stock after he was arrested by Georgian security forces. The uranium was found to be 90 percent pure, which is weapons grade standard, according to the Stanford University Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources.

The separatist regions in Georgia could prove a goldmine for radioactive material, which would have a huge value on the black market, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia are already bustling bazaars for everything from stolen vehicles to weapons.

Georgian law enforcement bears brunt of nabbing smugglers
The arrangement has proven to be a tense one for Georgian law enforcement, which is left largely on its own to stem the flow of stolen goods – including radioactive wares, which Russia routinely denies has gone missing.

“If the Russians say they are loosing nuclear materials that we are stopping, then they also have to admit that there nuclear security is not were it is supposed to be,” said a Georgian interior ministry official in an interview with Bellona Web before violence erupted on August 6th between Georgia and Russia when Georgia launched a police action on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in an effort to bring the ribald no-man’s land to heel.

Looting could bust open storage sites for radioactive materials
The wide-spread looting and destruction that have followed have nuclear materials monitors worried that what nuclear material remains in the break away republic Georgian of Abkhazia and the smugglers’ paradise of South Ossetia may make conditions ripe for even more material to go missing.

“Russia will say that they will secure these radioactive sources, but the truth is they are as liable to take them as any smuggles we have apprehended,” said the Georgian interior ministry official in an email interview on Monday.

A ceasefire was negotiated between Georgia and Russia last week, but, so far, Russia has taken the opposite tack and dug in their positions even further in what appears to be preparation on an assault on Tblisi. Georgia’s capital. Looting and summary executions are being reported by human rights groups and the Georgian government.

In the last decade there have been a number of occasions in the Caucasus region when traffickers have been caught with uranium including a smuggler stopped on the Armenian border with a tablet of the heavy metal in a packet of tea.

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 2003 a weighed-down taxi was found with lead lined boxes containing strontium and caesium, the Stanford database confirmed.

On at least two occasion smugglers have been caught going through rebellious Adzharia province in southern Georgian through the port of Batumi on the Black Sea, said the Independent, which was confirmed by the Stanford database.