Chechnya's ticking radiation bomb
IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 271, 27 January, 2005
Dangerous radioactive cobalt lies practically unguarded in a Grozny chemical factory wrecked by war, poverty and lawlessness.
By Amina Bisaeva in Grozny
Radiation levels are increasing from virtually unguarded supplies of radioactive cobalt in Grozny 's former chemical factory, which has been torn apart by war and looters.
According to the Ministry for Emergency Situations of Chechnya, levels there are tens of thousands of times higher than the normal level.
The source of the problem is Block 212 where an underground storage site houses containers of cobalt-60. Officials say that the situation at the semi-ruined factory worsened after looters searching for scrap dismantled the metal cover over one of the two sarcophagi.
Now the Chechen authorities are searching for funds to clean up the site.
The radioactive cobalt-60 was brought to the chemical factory in Soviet times for use in production of polyethylene. Fearing the consequences if such material was stolen, the directors of the chemical factory in the early 1990s, when Chechnya unilaterally declared independence, moved the cobalt into an underground bunker.
The container with the radioactive cobalt was opened for the first time on September 13, 1999.
The culprits were soon revealed: six youths from the nearby neighborhood of Kirov . They were also the factory's first radiation victims.
Unaware of the danger caused by contact with radioactive material, the young people inspected the container and even took part of its contents home with them.
According to the ministry for emergency situations, three of the people who were in the storage unit died within a week to ten days. The other three were taken to hospital in Rostov in critical condition.
The second break-in at the bunker happened two years ago. This time, two young people died.
The danger is only growing, said a leading expert from the department of radiation, chemical and biological contamination at the ministry for emergency situations, Bibolt Zubairev.
"We have noticed an increase in the level of background radiation in one of the sarcophagi at the storage site. This is the one from which thieves have removed the covering. This happened about half a year ago. As you would expect, the consequences of this partial release were soon detectable, [as] before, the permissible level of radiation for the sarcophagus was fixed according to the level of background radiation," he said.
The contamination department's head, Abdulkosim Khamidov, said efforts have been made to secure the site since late 1999, the start of the second Chechen war in the last decade.
"Safety work at the chemical factory was carried out in 2000: the radioactive materials were removed from blocks No 65 and 131. In block No 212, temporary measures were taken: access to the two sarcophagi was restricted and they were encased in metal coverings made of lead, sand and concrete. These measures succeeded in reducing the level of radiation," he said.
However, the concrete is wearing away: the sarcophagi were built to last 5-6 months and already four years have gone by. The theft of the cover has only made things worse.
Marat Batsuev, chief engineer at specialist firm Radon, said that the destruction of the walls by looters in search of bricks made the clean-up harder. "They are going through the semi-destroyed walls of block No 212 to gather second-hand bricks," he said. At this rate, the structure is in danger of collapse.
While the authorities plan, but do nothing, "radioactive materials remain on the unguarded territory of the Grozny factory and the environmental situation gets worse by the day", Batsuev added.
According to official statements, just before the beginning of the current war, which started in late 1999, 27 containers with dangerous content were held in Block 212's underground bunker.
Cobalt rods measuring 9-12 centimetres in lead encasement were in each container. As a representative of the chemical factory explained, the initial activity of one rod measures 27,000 curies. The radioactive fallout from just one such a source lasts for several years and could threaten an entire neighborhood.
Most disconcerting of all for the experts is the fact that several radioactive rods have disappeared without trace. Theft has been made even easier by the removal recently of two armored doors blocking access to the bunker.
Although radiation levels in adjacent buildings are not dangerous at present, a disaster at the site - an accidental bombing or extremist act - would cause a crisis.
Zubairaev, at the ministry for emergency situations, said that in case of the factory being blown up, radioactive dust would spread dozens of square kilometers.
Amina Bisaeva is editor of Vecherny Grozny newspaper.