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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Teams Search Georgia for Nuclear Material

TBILISI, Georgia -- By foot, vehicle and horseback, international search teams have been scouring the mountains of this former Soviet republic for lost and deadly radioactive sources.

The mission may ultimately prove a model for systematic roundups elsewhere by governments and international agencies worried that dangerous "orphan sources," radioactive devices abandoned by their users, might fall into terrorist hands.

The search in Georgia focused first on two long-life communications batteries, run on highly radioactive strontium-90 and abandoned in western Georgia after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 and Russian troops pulled out.

Disused radioactive sources -- from the military, industry and medical facilities -- are believed to be scattered across the former Soviet Union. Russian authorities may have lost track of similar strontium batteries powering navigational beacons on the Pacific and Arctic coasts.

The U.S. military also deployed such batteries, to power unmanned sensors in Alaska, for example. No reports have surfaced that these are "orphaned," but an International Atomic Energy Agency expert advises vigilance.

"A report I saw on orphan sources in the U.S. was an awakening," Anthony Wrixon said at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria. "Even in a good system, things can go astray."

Regulators get an average of 300 reports a year of radioactive material lost in the United States. Since last September's terror attacks, a fear has grown that militants might spread radiation by detonating a "dirty bomb" of explosives attached to radioactive materials.

International specialists rushed to Georgia after three woodsmen found and carried off two strontium batteries in December.

"We've checked 112 of more than 200 Soviet sites so far, and we've found about 120 radioactive sources," said Soso Kakushadze of the Georgian Environment Ministry. The most dangerous contained strontium and cobalt-60.

In February, an IAEA team, using remote handling tools and working near the strontium for only 40 seconds at a time, finally secured the woodsmen's two batteries. Then a five-nation, 80-member IAEA search mission, equipped with radiation detectors, crisscrossed the same area last month, looking for at least two other strontium batteries believed abandoned there. At times they had to use horses in the rugged terrain.

The IAEA plans to expand the operation in September to hunt for other sources, this time using helicopter-mounted detectors.