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Radionuclides Spreading Around The World

File image of radionuclides on a platinum disk.
by Tatyana Sinitsyna
RIA Novosti commentator
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Jan 03, 2007
In the estimate of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are millions of dangerous sources of radiation. It seems, that are competing against natural sources - rivers, creeks, and springs, and not without success - the word "source" is getting an increasingly negative connotation. It would be appropriate to recall here the sacramental words of U.S. politician Donald Hodel, who described the world's nuclear successes as the walk of lunatics to a disaster.

He seems to have got it in one. We have split the atom and tamed it for our own purposes, and now it is our moral duty to be responsible for it. But so far we have not shown much responsibility, and so we can expect more shocks like the British polonium incident.

Mr. Litvinenko has died, but his name is still much in the news, and we hear more revelations. The IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, reports that it does not control turnover of radionuclides because they are outside its sphere of monitoring. How could such an omission happen? One of the IAEA's tasks is to prevent proliferation of radioactive materials. The public was shocked to find out that the IAEA only controls nuclear materials, that is, those which are used in the production of a classic nuclear bomb. A dirty bomb, the terrorists' dream, is outside their control.

The IAEA registers illegal radionuclide trafficking only when it gets voluntary reports from the states concerned. Who wants to have additional problems? Meanwhile, radionuclides and other radioactive materials have spread so much that it will not be easy to establish rigid control over them. Moreover, it is civilian radioactive sources used in medicine, metallurgy, agriculture, mining, and machine building that are becoming more dangerous than strictly controlled nuclear facilities.

The IAEA reports that every year the world produces over 10,000 medical devices for radiotherapy and up to 12,000 industrial radiographic sources of radiation. It is indeed surprising that they are not under tough control of some international infrastructure.

Professor Alexander Borovoi from the Kurchatov Institute Russian Research Center and former IAEA consultant on radiation, recalled a tragic incident which took place in the Brazilian city of Goiania in 1987. Garbage removers found a medical device based on cesium-137 at a dump in one of the poorest areas. Having broken it, they saw a blue luminous dust. They decided that it was something very precious or even supernatural, and invited neighbors and relatives to have a look. As a result, 244 people received dangerous doses of radiation, and hundreds of others damaged their health to different extent.

Sources of radiation which are stolen, lost, or left behind by careless owners are creating huge problems. In its report on the safety of sources of radiation at its international conference in Vienna in March 2003, the IAEA acknowledged that a hundred countries had no effective control over sources of radiation for lack of relevant infrastructures. The IAEA has officially registered up to 300 cases of illegal trafficking in radionuclides since 1993. This situation is fraught with danger for the world community.

About 30% of radioactive sources are used inappropriately even in the most advanced countries, for instance, at 500,000 out of the two million nuclear facilities in the U.S. The EU countries are not doing much better. In the last 15 years, they produced 500,000 radioactive sources, out of which 110,000 are in use today. However, a quarter of these are being used wrongly, and their storage is not properly controlled.

In the former Soviet Union, all radioactive materials were subject to extremely rigid control. "At the Kurchatov Institute, where I've worked my whole life, we had to go through numerous procedures in order to get radionuclides for research. We had to get a special permit and process a heap of papers through different channels," Professor Borovoy said. "They meticulously checked up on us all along, and we had to account for every microgram."

The modernized control system still rests on strict Soviet tradition. Head of Rostekhnadzor (Federal Environmental, Engineering, and Nuclear Supervision Agency) Konstantin Pulikovsky told RIA Novosti: "We have found no deviations from the requirements on the storage and movement of nuclear materials, including polonium, at any of the structures under our supervision."

Nuclear materials are under control, but there are still problems with radionuclides, or isotopes, as revealed by Radon, a service in charge of monitoring radiation in Moscow round the clock. According to its Deputy Director General Oleg Polsky, from 20 to 60 cases of radioactive pollution are tracked every year. Radon is very meticulous and tough, which has won Moscow the reputation of one of the world's radiation safest capitals.

The situation in former Soviet republics is far more complicated. Local revolutions and change of government have resulted in the loss of control over sources of radiation left from the Soviet times. Tom Parfitt wrote in the London Times in 2003: "Georgia with its piles of abandoned Soviet hardware, weak law enforcement and shaky separatist regimes, has become a potential goldmine of radioactive sources. At least three times in the past five years a trafficker has been caught here with 1 kg of low-enrichment uranium. A smuggler trying to cross the border with it had a tablet of the heavy metal stuffed in a teabag."

Speaking at a Vienna conference, IAEA officer Abel Gonzalez said that in 1995 a whole family was exposed to radiation in the Estonian village of Tammiku when one of its members found a tiny piece of radioactive material of unknown origin and put it into a drawer in the kitchen table. As a result, he and his family received lethal radiation doses.

Another case took place on the other side of the globe - in Thailand. Local scrap shop owners cut the metal parts of a stolen cylinder used for the treatment of cancer, and took out a radiation source of cobalt 60. Three of them died, and 11 were heavily exposed. Investigators found two more such cylinders stored in a parking lot.

On January 12, 2005, a system of radiation control set off an alarm on the territory of the Murmansk merchant marine port, when a seaman from the Chinese Yong Tai vessel (Hong Kong) was going through customs. His clothes and other belongings were contaminated with an isotope of cesium-137.

Those who are dreaming of a dirty bomb would be happy to get the container with radioactive cesium-137, and americium-241, which was lost by the Puerto Rican Geoexport Company as a result of negligence during transportation. Terrorists would have been glad to learn that the American Buoy Inspection Service in Louisiana kept containers with radionuclides at unlocked premises. In the estimate of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all in all more than 1,500 sources of radiation have been lost in the U.S. in the past 10 years. This list can go on.

The IAEA Data Base registered 103 cases of illegal trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials in 2005. How many more similar emergencies should happen for the world community to take action? Or are we lunatics marching towards disaster? The polonium incident in London is another marker of radionuclides, which are tacitly spreading all over the world.

Source: RIA Novosti

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