~e; mini-nuke-generators

From bc <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Mon, 18 Mar 2002 18:44:24 -0600
In-reply-to <200203182316.SAA19854@sane2.washingtonpost.com>
References <200203182316.SAA19854@sane2.washingtonpost.com>

"RTGs are self-contained power sources that convert radioactive 
energy into electricity. Compact and relatively small -- Soviet 
models are between two and four feet in length and weigh between 
1,000 and 3,000 pounds -- they are ideal for remote areas with little 
access to traditional fuels. The Soviets are known to have built more 
than 300 of the devices, most of them to power navigational beacons 
along arctic shipping lanes."

  [have to be honest, i had absolutely no idea such a thing as an RTG 
existed. i am
  not sure what it exacty is, does, as nuclear power navigation systems seem a
  bit over-the-top. but maybe it is truly the intent for such 
radioactive machinery.
  what i did imagine, when first reading, was that it was similar to 
  which sometimes have nuclear (proton i think) engines for propelling 
  through space at a steady rate, that is, going the distance in the 
solar system,
  and someday the universe, which is sometimes why nuclear is hard to dismiss
  or some future varient (hopefully much safer and disposable). it is 
hear to stay,
  in some form or another, but hopefully in advancing more humane causes than
  bunker-busting bombs and tactical nukes for battlefield troops, deployable by
  tanks and bazookas, etc. really brutal warfare, which is pure hell, no games.
  this may be something like an inversion of idea of a fuel cell, 
which is possibly
  an open system of sorts, compared with a fissile nuclear container that as it
  runs is contained in its own processes, and half-lifes into a 
radiotoxic waste.]

To view the entire article, go to 

Makings of a 'Dirty Bomb'

By Joby Warrick

Six months ago, they were mere Cold War trash: hundreds of small 
radioactive power generators scattered across the Soviet Union 
decades ago and largely forgotten, except when the odd lumberjack 
turned up with severe radiation burns.

But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, these aging but potentially lethal 
devices are being viewed in a troubling new light: as possible 
components in a weapon to be used in a terrorist strike. Even more 
troubling, some of them have vanished.

In Georgia, on the Black Sea, a search is underway for at least two 
of the devices, called radiothermal generators, or RTGs, believed to 
have been abandoned and then stolen after the closing of a Soviet 
military base. Just before Christmas, three woodcutters in 
northwestern Georgia suffered massive injuries after stumbling upon a 
similar device in the middle of a forest.

In the far-eastern Russian region of Chukotka, investigators 
discovered a complete breakdown in controls over 85 radiothermal 
generators placed along the arctic coast by the Soviets in the 1960s 
and '70s. Some of the machines had been vandalized for scrap metal, 
others were literally falling into the surf and at least one could 
not be found, according to Russian government documents obtained by 
The Washington Post.

"The generators are placed on open land, are clearly visible from the 
sea and are visited by staff no more than once a year (in recent 
years, staff has not visited the sites at all)," said a report by a 
Russian commission that inspected the generators in 1997. "They would 
be easy targets for a terrorist attack, the consequences of which 
could be extremely serious."

Vladimir Yetylin, a legislator from Chukotka, located on the Bering 
Sea, said in an interview Friday that he suspected some generators 
were still missing and planned to press for an investigation.

"At the time, there was not enough money to gather up these [power] 
sources," said Yetylin, a member of the lower house of the Russian 
parliament, the State Duma, blaming the chaos that followed the 
collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The RTGs, used by the Soviets to power navigational beacons and 
communications equipment in remote areas, each contain up to 40,000 
curies of highly radioactive strontium or cesium. Even a tiny 
fraction of a single curie of strontium has a high probability of 
causing a fatal cancer, according to a calculation by the Institute 
for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), a nuclear watchdog 
group. While cesium and strontium cannot be used to make nuclear 
weapons, the two heavy metals could contaminate large areas if 
combined with conventional explosives in a radiological weapon or 
"dirty bomb."

"This stuff can be just ghastly to clean up," said Federation of 
American Scientists President Henry Kelly, a physicist who testified 
this month at a Senate hearing on dirty bombs. Such a bomb detonated 
in a large city could render several blocks uninhabitable, he added.

There are literally hundreds of places where terrorists could obtain 
material for such a bomb, including former dumping grounds for 
medical waste in this country. But the recent discoveries in the 
former Soviet Union have further heightened international concerns 
about the possibility of nuclear theft. The RTGs in particular offer 
high concentrations of radioactivity with minimal controls -- and 
sometimes no controls, according to officials of the International 
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watchdog of the United 

"After the Soviet Union broke up so abruptly, the newly formed 
nations had no use for these things and no infrastructure," said 
Melissa Fleming, an IAEA spokeswoman in Vienna. "They didn't have the 
means or even the information to locate, recover and dispose of them."

The IAEA classifies the Soviet RTGs as "orphaned" nuclear sources and 
has called for a major international effort to find them and lock 
them up. "They are a problem, from the point of view of terrorism," 
Fleming said. But she added: "Since we can't find them, presumably it 
would be hard for terrorists to find them as well."

RTGs are self-contained power sources that convert radioactive energy 
into electricity. Compact and relatively small -- Soviet models are 
between two and four feet in length and weigh between 1,000 and 3,000 
pounds -- they are ideal for remote areas with little access to 
traditional fuels. The Soviets are known to have built more than 300 
of the devices, most of them to power navigational beacons along 
arctic shipping lanes.

The U.S. government also built RTGs; some were used to power 
spacecraft, but at least 10 of the devices were installed at remote 
military listening posts in Alaska in the 1960s and '70s. After a 
brush fire threatened one of the devices in 1992, the Air Force began 
replacing them with diesel-powered generators.

In Soviet-made RTGs, the device's core typically is a flashlight-size 
capsule of strontium 90, surrounded by thick lead to absorb the 
radiation. When the lead cladding is intact, the generator is 
essentially harmless. But if the shielding were missing or cracked, 
someone standing nearby would receive a fatal dose of radiation 
within hours, IAEA officials said.

It was the strontium core that the Georgian woodcutters discovered in 
December while working in a remote forest in the northwestern region 
of Abkhazia. According to IAEA officials, the metal cylinder caught 
the men's attention because its heat had melted the surrounding snow. 
Oblivious to the risk, the men took the device back to their campsite.

Within hours the men suffered severe skin burns and internal organ 
damage. Nearly three months later, two of them are still critically 
ill in hospitals in Moscow and Paris, while the third has recovered.

Last month, an international team led by the IAEA recovered the 
strontium core and a sister device that had been abandoned in the 
same area. Even though special one-ton lead shields were constructed 
for the recovery effort, the workers were allowed to approach the 
cores for only 40 seconds at a time. The cores were trucked to the 
Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where they are being temporarily stored 
along with four others that have been recovered since 1998.

Still far from clear, the IAEA says, is how the cores ended up in the 
woods -- or how the Georgian government eventually will dispose of 
them. According to the IAEA, Georgian officials are convinced that 
more remain unaccounted for.

"Based on inventories, we think there are two more," Fleming said. 
"And there is some information that suggests still other sources in 

In other corners of the former Soviet Union, the fact that officials 
know the location of the devices has done little to ease local safety 

The Russian government commission that visited Chukotka in 1997 set 
out in ships to inspect 85 radiothermal generators believed to be 
scattered along the region's northern coast. The officials were 
unable to reach about a third of the devices because of harsh terrain 
and bad weather. But of the 52 RTGs inspected, nearly half no longer 
functioned, and only three had any sort of fencing or protection.

The commission's report describes six of the devices as heavily 
damaged and leaking potentially lethal amounts of radiation. One of 
the generators was nearly buried in frozen mud, it said, a second was 
lying in water and at least one could not be located.

"This lack of control means that it is entirely within the realm of 
possibility that . . . one or several RTGs might have been lost," 
said the report, signed by the province's chief health inspector, 
G.B. Lebedev, and chief inspector, Yuri Skobelev.

The generators had long sparked concern among local health officials 
and international wildlife groups worried about the potential for 
radiation leaks. But even before the Sept. 11 attacks, 
environmentalists who visited the region expressed concern about the 
apparent lack of security for the devices.

"It was just sitting in a wooden hutch -- I could have walked right 
up to it," said David Kleine, director of the World Wildlife Fund's 
Alaska field office, who passed within a few yards of one of the 
generators during a 1991 Bering Sea trip.

Still, there is an enormous difference between finding an abandoned 
generator and successfully carting it away to create a weapon, 
nuclear experts say. IEER President Arjun Makhijani said an amateur 
tampering with such a device would put his own life in peril. But for 
someone with proper training and a bent for terror, the generators 
could be a means for inflicting significant harm.

"If you don't know what you are doing, it will kill you first," 
Makhijani said. "But if you know what you're doing, it will do an 
extreme amount of damage."

Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.

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