Georgia rediscovers lost plutonium source

Reports that the Georgian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources has rediscovered a previously lost nuclear source marks another incident in the country’s long-running problems with nuclear material accountability.

The small mass of radioactive plutonium-beryllium, discovered at the Tbilisi Isotope Institute a few days ago, was placed into storage in the building’s repository in 1968 and had apparently then been forgotten.  Giorgi Nabakhtiani, a nuclear and radioactive specialist at the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, reports that it has now been declared to the authorities, moved to a secure location and reported to the IAEA.

This incident exemplifies the region’s struggle with controlling and verifying nuclear material left over from the Soviet era. When the Soviet Union fragmented in 1991, Georgia was left with a nuclear legacy comprising of one reactor and a small number of related facilities, most notably the Vekua Institute of Physics and Technology (SIPT), which had been used for isotope production. A large number of military bases also remained, most of which are now defunct.

Despite the small number of facilities dedicated to nuclear research and materials production, Georgia suffered a fate similar to other satellite republics when the USSR imploded: the handover of facilities was uncontrolled, chaotic, and in some cases consisted of Soviet personnel simply packing up and leaving, with no proper handover of authority or transfer of records. Economic decline, as in so many other cases, soon followed, and the newly-established authorities lost track of sources used in industry and medicine.

All of this created an atmosphere ripe for smugglers, conmen and chaos in general, and fears of unauthorised transfer of materials were soon realised.

Since 1993, Georgian authorities and the IAEA have uncovered fifteen cases of highly enriched uranium or plutonium smuggling in the country. However, it is not just smuggling that poses proliferation concerns. Over the last fifteen years, Georgia has recovered close to 300 industrial and medical radioactive sources, some of them found on the floors and shelves of abandoned buildings with no shielding or accompanying documentation. In some cases these sources do not even qualify as unaccounted-for material, as they long ago slipped out of the accounting process.

In order to improve the wider situation, Georgia, the IAEA and the United States have been working together for over a decade to find and trace missing and previously unrecorded nuclear sources and to try to contain smuggling in the region. But the high level of incidents continues to be worrying: for every source found and every smuggler stopped, there may be many more that slip through the net. The recent further de facto fragmentation of the region since the 2008 war in Georgia has not helped the coordination of efforts, and one must fear that incidents of this sort will continue, even as Georgia moves close to completing a dedicated secure storage facility for material found so far.

“Forgotten Radioactive Material Turns Up in Georgian Lab” NTI, 2nd August 2010

“Georgia: Radioactive Waste Development Overview” NTI

“Georgia Foils Attempt to Smuggle Weapons-Grade Uranium” The Guardian, April 2010