Georgia chaos halts nuclear security effort

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

WASHINGTON - The chaos in Georgia has forced the United States to halt a high-priority program that was helping the former Soviet republic to identify possible smugglers of nuclear bomb components across its borders, long considered a transit point for terrorists seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction, according to US officials.

A team from the US Nuclear Security Administration was providing Georgian authorities with radiation equipment and training at key border crossings and the Batumi airport on the country's Black Sea coast when Russia invaded two weeks ago. The advisers were forced to flee the country within days, according to a spokesman from the Department of Energy.

The program is part of a series of US-led international "threat reduction" projects in Georgia - totaling nearly $50 million - to improve the security of nuclear research facilities and prevent the spread of radioactive materials that terrorists could use to build a crude nuclear weapon or a so-called "dirty bomb" designed to spread radiation over a wide area.

With the effort now on hold, and a general breakdown in order throughout the republic, American officials fear would-be nuclear traffickers could take advantage of the situation.

"Georgia has been a hotbed of nuclear smuggling," said Gene Aloise, a senior analyst at the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which has conducted several studies on nuclear security in Georgia. "Because of these past incidents, one as recently as 2006, any type of disruption - like tanks rolling in from Russia - is a cause for concern."

Twice in the last five years Georgian authorities have thwarted attempts to smuggle quantities of highly enriched uranium - dangerous, weapons-grade nuclear material. Over the past decade other radioactive materials, including plutonium, have also been intercepted on the black market.

Last week, at previously scheduled meetings between American and European experts on deterring nuclear terrorism, the discussions focused heavily on the worsening situation in Georgia.

"We have raised questions about this conflict and about the broader issues that it raises," Ambassador Wendy Sherman, a member of the US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, said by telephone from Vienna, where the congressional body was meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency. "The commission is taking a look at what else we might be doing."

She said one question looms in her mind: "Are the borders secure?"

In 2003, Georgian border guards, using detection technologies provided by the United States, intercepted 173 grams of highly enriched uranium at the Sadahlo border crossing with Armenia. Then in 2006, a Russian man was arrested for allegedly trying to sell 100 grams of highly enriched uranium - with the promise of 10 pounds more - to a Georgian official posing as an Islamic radical.

Officials also fear that the chaos could loosen security at several facilities inside Georgia containing radioactive materials. Although the nuclear weapons that had been stationed on its territory during the Cold War have been removed, Georgia has three nuclear research facilities - including one located in a province that has been a flashpoint in the recent conflict with Russia.

The I. Vekua Institute of Physics and Technology in Sukhumi, in the pro-Russia province of Abkhazia, is not safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Georgian authorities have previously reported they believe some radioactive materials that had been stored there - including highly enriched uranium - have been sold to terrorists, an assertion the local government has denied.

Georgia is also home to "thousands of radiological sources," the legacy of the then-Soviet Union's vast complex of weapons sites, nuclear research reactors, and scientific and medical institutions, according to the GAO. The sites house large quantities of Cesium and Strontium that could be used to fashion a dirty bomb.

The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration reported that in 2006 Georgian authorities detected and seized small amounts of plutonium and cesium-137 during two separate smuggling attempts.

To help improve the country's ability to deal with the problem, NNSA - along with the State Department and the international Global Threat Reduction Initiative - has conducted training programs for Georgian officials and helped build a secure depository for radioactive waste.

Until the invasion, NNSA was also in the process of providing state-of-the-art radiation detection equipment at 20 sites in Georgia, including 14 border crossings, two seaports, three airports, and a training center. To date, only six border crossings, two seaports, and the training center are considered secure, NNSA said.

But for safety reasons, the 10 US technicians who were providing the on-the-ground assistance to the Georgians were ordered out of the country on Aug. 9.

"NNSA regards work in Georgia as a priority due to its location with respect to potential nuclear smuggling routes," said agency spokeswoman Casey Ruberg. "We look forward to continuing this work as soon as advisable."

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and the international community have spent billions to help Russia and its neighbors secure excess nuclear materials, find peaceful employment for weapons scientists, and beef up border security.

Now, some specialists worry the fighting between Georgia and Russia - and the damage it has caused to Washington-Moscow relations - has jeopardized those efforts. "It is hard to see how cooperation between our two countries on any matter, including the cooperative threat reduction, can be sustained," said Leonard S. Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington.

But others insisted that US and Russian leaders cannot let those efforts falter.

"They ought not look at all [US-Russia] relationships and terminate them," said former secretary of defense William S. Cohen.

"We have to deal with the immediate situation, but it remains in their national security interest and ours to have threat reduction [programs]," added Sherman. "When it comes to nuclear material or nuclear weapons, this is very serious business."

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