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Upgrading the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources in the Republic of Georgia

IAEA Experts are Working Closely with Georgian Authorities in Response to the Latest Radiological Incident

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Experts from the IAEA are working closely with authorities in the Republic of Georgia on the next stages of a difficult operation to safely recover and secure two powerful radioactive sources found in a remote northwest forested area of the country late last year.

The sources were found in December 2001 by three men who apparently were unaware of the dangers the sources posed to them. The men consequently suffered serious injuries from overexposure and were hospitalised in Georgia. Two remain hospitalized.

The encased but unshielded cylindrical sources are about the size of a person's hand and contain the radioactive element strontium-90. Though small in size, each source emits heat and a large amount of radioactivity, on the order of 40,000 curies (one curie is equivalent to 37 billion bequerel, the international measurement unit of radioactivity).

Latest Developments (4 February 2002)

In late December, both of the strontium sources were located by Georgian authorities who subsequently requested the IAEA's assistance with the recovery effort; the Agency sent expert teams in January. But final operations since then have been difficult, especially hampered by severe winter weather and rough terrain that has limited access of response crews. The IAEA presently has emergency response experts in Georgia who are working with national counterparts to safely retrieve and transport the sources to a secure interim storage site.

In the coming week, experts from the IAEA, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, and the United States are meeting with Georgian authorities, from 6-8 February, to review the recovery operation; measures to improve the management, safety, and security of radioactive sources in the country; and plans to search for, locate, and secure other lost or abandoned radioactive sources.

As previously reported by the IAEA, discarded or "orphan" radioactive sources have been found before in Georgia over the past decade, and experts estimate that many others remain lost, abandoned, or otherwise outside of regulatory control. At the request of Georgian authorities, the IAEA has responded in recent years to a number of emergencies the country has faced involving orphan radioactive sources, and from May to July 2000 conducted, with France's support, an aerial survey of selected areas as part of concerted efforts to find discarded sources.

The latest incident has heightened concerns over the safety and security of radiation sources, not only in Georgia but elsewhere. The IAEA is moving to further strengthen its security-related programmes and assistance services, and important steps have been taken since September 2001. The Agency's Board of Governors is next meeting in mid-March on a detailed set of measures that were proposed and outlined by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei in November 2001. They are aimed to reduce threats from potential acts of nuclear terrorism and upgrade the Agency's programmes for the security of nuclear material, radioactive sources, and nuclear facilities.