An international team of experts has flown to the former Soviet republic of Georgia to try to recover two highly radioactive objects that were found near a mountainous region controlled by Muslim rebels, officials said yesterday.
The objects, cylinders not much larger than a can of string beans, caught the attention of three woodsmen because nearby snow was melting. The men lugged the surprisingly heavy objects to their campsite for warmth and soon became dizzy and nauseated. A week later, they had radiation burns. All three men are now in a hospital in Tbilisi, Georgia, and one is fighting for his life.
The incident, which unfolded with little attention in December, has set off a monthlong international hunt through snowy mountains for the devices, which, it turns out, were abandoned Soviet nuclear batteries.
Wanting to keep them out of the hands of terrorists, the recovery team from the International Atomic Energy Agency is planning to haul heavy lead shields into the Georgian woods and recover the radioactive devices this weekend, weather permitting. The cylinders are filled with strontium 90, which has a half-life of 28 years and binds readily with human bones.
"These sources are very powerful," said Julio Gonzalez, director of the IAEA's division of radiation and waste safety. "The good news is that the place is so remote, so difficult to reach."
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, American and international officials have developed new concerns about the remaining nuclear batteries and are taking aggressive steps to round them up.
"It's a bigger deal," a Bush administration official said. "We're trying not to do this in an alarmist way. We're taking reasonable steps to help the Georgians deal with these and other sources so they are appropriately controlled."
The fear is that the old batteries could be turned into radiation or radiological weapons, sometimes known as "dirty nukes." The poor cousins of nuclear arms, such weapons use conventional high explosives to scatter highly radioactive materials to poison an area. Their effects on people can range from virtually nothing to radiation sickness to slow death.
The Georgian incident is reported in today's issue of the journal Science, which said the men are the first confirmed victims of lost Soviet nuclear batteries.
On Monday, American, French, Russian, Georgian and possibly German officials are planning to meet in Tbilisi to review the recovery effort and discuss the lingering danger.
"It's a serious threat," said Tom Clements, executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute, a private group in Washington.