"Orphaned Sources": What happens to radioactive waste in Georgia?Print this page
November 2003

Still from the movie
IAEA looking for strontium source in western Georgia (videostill)

In winter 2002, three residents of Tsalenjikha, western Georgia, suffered severe injuries due to exposure to a strontium source, which they had found in the forest. Two of the men have been treated in France and Russia for severe radiation sickness and burns.
These small generators were used during the soviet era to power communication towers in nature areas. Apart from the direct damage these generators cause to people, they can pollute the food chain for many years.

This year, in September 2003, the Radiation Safety Service of the Ministry of Environment recovered a radioactive source Cesium-137 in the village of Saakadze of the Gardabani district, eastern Georgia. The Radiation Safety Service stated that it was unknown how the radioactive source appeared in the village.

In the capital radioactive waste appears as well. During a regular police check last June police in Tbilisi seized a taxi which was transporting radioactive sources Cesium and Strontium. The owner of the vehicle said, he knew nothing about the contents of the freight: a stranger had asked him to deliver it to the Central Railway Station.

These are examples of the so-called 'orphaned sources'. Some of these materials were left behind by the Soviet army after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some found their way to Georgia via illegal trading. In Caucasus places where nuclear waste is stored have not always been well regulated. Large amounts of waste have been stolen by soldiers and citizens, hoping to make money. During the '94-'96 Chechen war for example almost half of the material from one radioactive waste storage site was stolen. Guards who normally maintained security at the site fled because of the danger of violent attacks.
Also in Georgia storage sites are not well secured. In February 2003 three containers of radioactive Cesium-137 went missing from the former Soviet military base of Vaziani near Tbilisi.

International assistance


Some serious incidents with international publicity outreach needed to take place before Georgia got assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to find and store dangerous radioactive materials. In 1997 at the Vaziani military base eleven soldiers were exposed to radiation and made seriously ill. In 2002, after three residents of Tsalenjikha, western Georgia, suffered severe injuries due to exposure to a strontium source, the Agency assisted the Georgian government to locate these highly radioactive thermoelectric generators in the western region. In the end six of the strontium sources were found but there may be eight of them, or perhaps more.
These small generators were used during the soviet era to power communication towers. Each contains a similar amount of the radioactive element strontium-90 as was released (among a lot of other radioactive elements) during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
According to scientists, strontium-90 would be a long-lived radioactive component of nuclear fallout and would be a part of the food chain for many years, collecting in the bones and secreted in the milk of animals which eat Strontium 90-contaminated plants.

The Georgian government does not have exact information about where they are or how many there are. Russian military forces abandoned radioactive material in hundreds of locations around Georgia without notifying the local authorities.

Radioactive Source
Source found by Georgian ministry (video still)

What do people know about radiation?


Awareness among the Georgian population on this subject is very low. Most citizens seem to have no knowledge of the dangers of radiation. Organizations have no information about contaminated areas and what to do in cases of radiation incidents. At the Human Rights Information and Documentation Center in Tbilisi several people asked for help. They are concerned and wondering if they became ill from radiation, and wonder if their fruits and vegetables are contaminated and not safe to consume.
The ministry of environment expressed the desire to do a public awareness campaign on radiation hazards but they lack the finances to implement it. At the Tbilisi State University there is a radioecology laboratory with statistic information on contaminated soils and plants in Georgia. But also they say they lack the money to make this information known to the public.
Contrary to the intended warnings of the ministry to the public, Georgia has a law - ironically drafted by the department of emergency situations - that allows the export of scrap metal. This law is driving people to search for and sell possibly dangerous metals.

Storage

By July 2002, the Georgian ministry had found 130 sources with different radiation levels. But even when sources are located and stored, the danger for citizens is not over yet.
In autumn 2002 we could see on Belgium television a TV-reporter just walking into one of the storage places; the fence appeared to be open.
In February 2003 three containers of radioactive Cesium-137 went missing from the former Soviet military base of Vaziani near Tbilisi. Cesium-137 is intensely radioactive and can cause permanent damage to anyone who comes into direct contact with it.
The containers were supposed to have been moved to a special storage place, but since no such storage facilities exist in Georgia, the containers remained at the base.
At the Fifth Ministerial Conference (on environment) that was held in Kiev last May the Georgian ministry raised the issue of the radiation waste reservoir. It was mentioned being a serious problem for Georgia, since they do not know what to do with the discovered waste. The negotiations concerning the financing of the construction of a long term storage place are still ongoing, no outcome yet.

The International Atomic Energy Agency only seems to be really concerned where they believe that radioactive material may be used by terrorists. The main aim of the Agency is to develop and promote the use of nuclear technology. In 2001, not even half a percent of their total budget was allocated for programs relating to the safe storage of radioactive waste and orphaned sources.
Consequently, low level radioactive sources seem to be not even considered by the Agency despite the fact that they can harm people and the environment. The Georgian government has to deal with these low-level sources without international help.



Still from the movie
Looking for radioactive waste at a military base (video still)


Sources:

The University of Georgia- College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences http://interests.caes.uga.edu/disaster/nuclear/articles/nuclear17.htm
Civil Georgia, September 19, 2003
Cenn e-mail newslist June 3, 2003, Daily Digest
Radio Free Europe, LF 12/05/03, www.rferl.org
Radioactive Material Gone Missing from Vaziani Base', by Tea Gularidze, Civil Georgia, www.civil.ge, February 2003
'Missing radioactive generators in Georgia raise 'Dirty Bomb" concerns', by Ken Stier: 6/28/02, EURASIA INSIGHT July 1, 2002
IAEA Annual report 2001, www.iaea.org
WISE news communique on November 19, 1999, www.antenna.nl/wise
Interviews with:
Soso Kakushadze, Head of radiation department of Ministry of Environment in Georgia
Maia Kapanadze, Ministry of Environment, Head PR
Dr. Samson Pagava, Head of Radiocarbon and Low-Level Counting Section, Physics Faculty of Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University
Rusudan Simonidze, Executive director Georgia Greens/ Friends of the Earth Georgia
Ucha Nanuashvili, Executive director HRIDC Tbilisi (Human Rights Information & Documentation Centre)