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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stray Radioactive Devices Recovered in Georgia

An international team of experts has recovered two highly radioactive objects that were found near the breakaway western Georgian province of Abkhazia, the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency said Sunday.

The discovery of the objects, which turned out to be abandoned Soviet nuclear batteries, sparked off international concern that terrorists might obtain nuclear material to make bombs.

"They have the devices and are expected to return late tonight to Tbilisi, where they will transfer them to a safe storage facility," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

The batteries, not much larger than a can of string beans, caught the attention of three woodsmen late last year because the snow nearby was melting. The men lugged the surprisingly heavy objects to their campsite for warmth and soon became dizzy and nauseated. A week later, they had radiation burns. All three men are now in a hospital in Tbilisi and one is fighting for his life.

The incident set off a monthlong international hunt through snowy mountains for the devices.

Eager to keep them out of the hands of terrorists, the recovery team from the IAEA hauled heavy lead shields into the Georgian woods over the weekend and recovered the radioactive devices Sunday.

The fact that the radioactive devices were located near Abkhazia, where Muslim rebels for years have been seeking to break away from Georgia, heightened officials' fears.

The radioactive devices were "right on that border," said an IAEA official in Vienna, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's a turbulent area.''

The cylinders are filled with strontium-90, which has a half-life of 28 years and binds readily with human bones.

"These sources are very powerful,'' Julio Gonzalez, director of the IAEA's division of radiation and waste safety, said last week. "The good news is that the place is so remote, so difficult to reach, even for us. So I believe it is not so easy to reach for terrorists.''

If terrorists tried to take the radioactive cylinders, he added, "they would probably kill themselves.''

The fear was that the old batteries could be turned into radiation or radiological weapons, sometimes known as "dirty nukes.'' The poor cousins of nuclear arms, such weapons use conventional high explosives to scatter highly radioactive materials to poison an area, rather than harness their energy to create an awesome blast. Their effects on people can range from virtually nothing to radiation sickness to slow death.

On Thursday and Friday, U.S., French, Russian, Georgian and possibly German officials are planning to meet in Tbilisi to review the recovery effort and discuss ways to tighten safety in Georgia.

The two cylinders found in the snowy woods were unshielded, officials said.

About 10 centimeters wide and 15 centimeters long, they are the cores of abandoned nuclear batteries that use natural radioactive decay and heat to produce electrical power, rather than actively breaking atoms apart, as nuclear reactors do.

During the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet military forces used nuclear batteries to power satellites in space and spy devices and clandestine radio gear on the ground.

Fleming said the men made their discovery in early December. Georgian authorities, alarmed by the find and the men's growing sickness, contacted the IAEA on Dec. 24 to ask for help.

On Jan. 4, the IAEA sent a medical and recovery team to Tbilisi. The doctors treated the men. Meanwhile, Fleming said, the recovery team linked up with Georgian officials and experts but found themselves unable to reach the radioactive source because of heavy snow.

''The roads are primitive,'' she said last week. "It was impossible to reach the area. Now the weather has improved.''

Each battery contains 40,000 curies of radiation, she said. By comparison, the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released about 50 million curies.

Gonzalez of the IAEA said the strontium-90 in the nuclear batteries was in a ceramic form and thus hard to pulverize into the kind of fine dust needed for the most effective terrorist weapons. Instead, he said, a high explosive would shatter most of it into chunks.

IAEA officials said that before Sunday's successful rescue mission, 280 radioactive sources had been recovered in Georgia, most of them low level and only four containing the dangerous strontium-90.

Gonzalez said an unknown, small number of the powerful ones are still missing.

(Reuters, NYT)