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You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Horizon
First shown: BBC Two, Thursday 30 January 2003
Dirty Bomb

Dirty Bomb - programme summary continued

Radioactive sources - page 2 of 4

"Controlling low grade material was not felt to be needed"

Dr Abel Gonzalez, IAEA

Dirty bombs can make use of many different radioisotopes, substances that naturally produce alpha, beta or gamma radiation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna attempts to keep track of all kinds of radioactive materials as they move around the globe.

It's December 2001 and the Agency's Abel Gonzalez hears alarming news from the former Soviet republic of Georgia: two woodcutters are in hospital with severe radiation burns. How have they been exposed to such high levels of radiation? Gonzalez immediately sends inspectors to the region, anxious to locate the radioactive source before anyone else might. The IAEA team eventually finds two canisters of low grade strontium-90. The sources are so dangerous that the collectors work 40 second shifts to limit their own exposure. 14 hours later, the strontium is safely inside lead-lined casks.

Orphan sources

The strontium is in the forest thanks, it seems, to a plan by the then USSR to develop mobile electricity generators, powered by radioactivity. Thousands of the generators were built. The Agency has also learned of other Soviet initiatives - including an agricultural scheme that involved irradiating seeds using caesium chloride. It's becoming clear that the former Soviet Union is littered with unguarded (so called 'orphan') radiation sources.

Radiological security

There's no need to rely on Soviet relics for a supply of radiological material. Engineering industries and health services routinely use radioisotopes. In March 1998, the US town of Greensboro, North Carolina went on high alert after medical instruments used to treat cervical cancer disappeared from its General Hospital - each contained a small amount of radioactive caesium. Surveying the hospital with geiger counters showed they had not been misplaced. The State's radiological protection board took over. A citywide search on the ground and from the air failed to recover the equipment. Whoever took the caesium got away with it.

Yet it seems there is no criminal action needed to get hold of radiation sources. Also in North Carolina, in June 2002, a small quantity of caesium turned up amongst scrap metal in a junkyard. The industrial equipment it came from had been thrown away when a company had closed down. US authorities estimate that thousands of similar radioactive sources could be missing in general circulation.

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