Albion Monitor /News

Casualties From Old Soviet Radioactive Waste

by Andrei Ivanov and Judith Perera

The policemen opened the canister found by the side of the road and were immediately exposed to a radioactive dose
(IPS) MOSCOW -- Radioactive waste illegally dumped in the secessionist Russian republic of Chechnya, usually under cover of the chaos of the 1994-6 conflict, is still claiming casualties years later.

Four policemen in the Chechen capital of Grozny were last week still receiving hospital treatment after being exposed to high doses of radiation earlier this month. They took away a canister containing dangerous radioactive material, found a few kilometers away from a former Russian military base in Khankala by a group of children.

The policemen opened the canister, and were immediately exposed to a radioactive dose 150 times higher than normal background levels. Opening the canister -- thought to have contained radioactive parts of a large X-ray unit, dumped by the road -- also resulted in serious contamination of the surrounding ground.

"We have no technical means to clean up the contaminated area which covers some five square kilometers," says Chechen deputy prime minister Musa Shakhabov. He says some 50 sets of special clothes and more than 30 special containers would be needed to decontaminate the land.

At least 21 sites in Chechnya where radioactive material was unguarded
In another incident on Jan. 9 three traffic policemen collapsed after they were subjected to a radiation overdose from a powerful radioactive source dumped in a quarry near their post.

Adlan Akharashev from the Chechen Emergencies Ministry says the radioactive material was located in an abandoned quarry 20 meters from the Grozny-Argun highway near the village of Michurin.

The level of radiation is up to 900 micro-roentgens an hour within a radius of 12 kilometers from the quarry and up to 2,000 micro-roentgens an hour in the quarry itself, Akharashev says.

Normal background radiation varies from three to eight micro- roentgens per hour.

The policemen were taken to a hospital in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia because doctors in Grozny could not diagnose them. The Grozny-Argun highway was closed to traffic and local residents were evacuated. A total of 12 hectares around the quarry which were contaminated are now being cleaned up.

The extent of the problem of radioactive waste dumps in the former Soviet republics is only now coming to light, and the war in Chechnya has clearly made the problem worse for the republic.

Indeed, at the height of the fighting Russian officials admitted that significant quantities of radioactive material had disappeared from waste disposal sites in Chechnya.

These included the Radon factory and nuclear waste disposal site near the village of Tolstoy-yurt, north of Grozny. Radon officials confirmed that at the start of the hostilities in November 1994, some 900 cubic meters of nuclear material had been stored at the facility but by the end of the war half of the material was missing.

A Russian government commission sent to Chechnya in March 1995 was denied access by Russian troops because of the fighting and it was not until a year later that a proper enquiry was launched. The investigators found at least 21 sites in Chechnya where radioactive material was unguarded.

Many of the sites were damaged by and some could not be approached because of mines. Monitoring with Geiger counters at various sites in Grozny, however, revealed radiation levels of 90 to 210 micro-roentgens per hour. The commission urged the immediate removal of all radioactive material to Moscow and strict monitoring of all the radioactive sites.

Most of the missing radioactive waste material come from civilian plants and facilities and are unrelated to weapons development.

Radon is a facility which takes old radioactive sources which have been used by industry (in measuring instruments, for example) or in medicine (for X-rays and radio therapy).

It was one such source which Chechen rebels used in November 1995 in a terrorist operation in Moscow. They buried a package containing radioactive caesium-137 under some leaves in Izmailovsky Park, a popular public park in north east Moscow.

Caesium-137 is not fissile and cannot be used to make atomic bombs. It is used in medicine as a source of radiation for computer tomography equipment and in industrial fault detection equipment. But it is highly radioactive and if exploded with conventional explosives would contaminate a large area. The bomb was defused.

Many of the former Soviet republics were left with waste dumps that were not properly monitored
The problem is not confined to Chechnya. Many of the former Soviet republics were left with waste dumps that were not properly monitored.

Recently Georgia has been facing similar problems. Earlier this month, eight capsules containing radioactive materials were discovered on the premises of former Soviet rocket base of Vaziani, not far from the capital, Tbilisi.

According to environmental minister Nino Chkhobadze, one capsule containing caesium-137 was secured and will be destroyed. But seven others still need to be located and removed.

The capsule which was found is similar to 15 others disclosed in the first part of October near training center in Lilo, near Tbilisi. The training center is a former Soviet military base.

Ten of the containers were buried at a shallow depth inside the training center, while five more was found outside the base. Four of the containers had radioactive caesium in them.

The soldiers who discovered them received high doses of radiation and are still receiving medical treatment. A Georgian governmental commission has identified 300 locations in the former Soviet republic where they expect to find similar radioactive sources.

Both Chechnya and Georgia are looking to Moscow to help with the clean up and with identifying any other locations where dangerous radioactive sources may have been dumped.

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Albion Monitor January 26, 1998 (

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