Military Prosecutors Share

The military prosecutor's letter.
Bellona Archive

Publish date: May 19, 2006

Written by: Rashid Alimov

ST. PETERSBURG―The deputy military prosecutor of the Siberian military district confirmed in a letter to Bellona that electric generators containing dangerous radioactive material were vandalised near the city of Norilsk in the Krasnoyarsk Region.

Before this letter, no official statements had been made by authorities despite repeated efforts of Bellona Web to secure the information. Bellona learned of the incident from local residents in the Krasnoyarsk.

According to Bellona Web’s information, because of a lack of funds at the end of 2005―during the transfer of a branch of military guard 96211 from the territory they occupied 60 kilometers to the south of Norilsk in the town of Kayerkan, eight strontium-90 powered radioisotope thermo-electric generators (RTGs) were left without any guard.

RTGs are used as electrical power sources in navigational lighthouses, radio beacons and weather stations. Of the some 1000 plus RTGs in Russia, all have surpassed their engineered life-spans of 10 years. Some are unaccounted for and nearly all of them are dilapidated, carry no radiation hazard signs and are open prey for metal thieves.

According to Bellona’s information, these eight RTGs of the Gorn type composed the Gletcher energy complex. Every RTG of the Gorn type has a thermal capacity of 1,100 watts, and an electricity-producing output of 60 watts. The radioisotope source of heat possesses 170,000 curies of radioactivity.

“By the results of the check-up, [the prosecutors’ office] demanded from the command of the military guards 46179 and 96211 to assume additional measures to secure guarding of the object, dismantling and decommissioning of the named radioactive sources”, the Ivanov letter to Bellona Web continues.

Dangerous capsule
Each RTG has a capsule of highly active strontium-90―a radioisopic heat source. RTG’s, because of their largely neglected state, are often the target of metal scavengers who can fetch high prices for the non-ferrous metal they obtain after ripping them apart. In many cases the scavengers simply leave behind or dump the strontium element.

As an example of how active these capsules can be, a strontium capsule dumped near a bus stop in Kingisepp in the Leningrad Region in 1999 was found to be emitting more than 1,000 roentgens per hour some 20 centimeters from the capsule. It later emerged that the capsule had been removed by metal scavengers from an RTG situated in a lighthouse 50 kilometres away.

For humans, absorbed dose higher than 100 roentgens leads to radiation sickness, and doses of momentary irradiation higher than 600 roentgens are considered absolutely fatal.

Information from the Military prosecutor’s office confirm Bellona Web’s data from sources in Norilsk that metal thieves left the strontium capsule in place. Nevertheless, the fact that dismantling RTGs is so clearly possible is, in Bellona’s opinion, scandalous.

In November 2003 in the Murmansk Region, metal thieves disposed of strontium capsules after disassembling RTGs of the Beta-M type. At that time, the Murmansk administration released a statement saying that the strontium capsules “were the source of heightened risk with the capacity to spread harmful radiation in the amount of 1,000 roentgens per hour. The presence of animal or human population within a 500 meter radius [of the abandoned capsule] presents a serious health risk, and even the possibility of death.”

The list of incidents with RTGs—including the leakage of strontium into the environment in 2004 at Cape Navarin—have been documented in a working document called “Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators” produced by Bellona.

Punishment of the thieves
According to the military prosecutors, police in the town of Kayerkan launched a criminal case under article 158, part 3 of the Russian Criminal Code― “theft of a large scale cost”.

“I doubt that the thieves will be punished, but is this so important?” asks Bellona’s legal adviser Nina Popravko.

“If the stolen [item] was so valuable, why it was left in an unguarded and fenceless territory? How was the cost estimated, and what corpus delicti [of theft] was there?”

According to Popravko: “RTGs were actually uncontrolled, and to improve the situation, it is important to call to account those who created such situation.”

Western help
A large number of RTGs were manufactured between 1960 and 1980 to operate lighthouses situated along unpopulated coastlines. The Engineered life-spans of all RTGs in Russia have been surpassed long time ago.

Today, when strontium can easily end up in the hands of terrorists and thus be employed in dirty bombs, this is an unacceptable security situation. With the help of Western nations, Russia is decommissioning RTGs.

“Russia brought the matter up to the international level―now the country receives money to solve the problem from the West,” said Vladimir Prilepskikh, head of the Siberian district of the Federal nuclear oversight, in an earlier interview with Bellona.Web.

“Though in my opinion, we should have our own money for this.”