On January 9, Kyrgyz officials announced that they had taken possession of a small load of a radioactive substance discovered aboard a train bound for Iran. The material has been placed in a special area in Kyrgyzstan, but questions are being raised about the nature and quantity of the substance, who was behind its transport, and how the train carrying it crossed three border checkpoints before being detected.
While it might simply be a coincidence that the train was bound for Iran, such a destination is also likely to raise eyebrows, given Western concerns over Tehran’s nuclear activities and alleged support of terrorism.
Kyrgyz officials are looking for answers, but their behavior has raised questions, too. Why, for example, did it take them nine days to announce the discovery of the material, which was found on December 31 when radiation detectors alerted Uzbek border guards? They promptly sent the train back to Kyrgyzstan.
Kubanych Noruzbaev, an official from the Kyrgyz Ecology and Environmental Protection Ministry, said on January 10 that the material was cesium-137, a product of nuclear reactors and weapons testing that is often used in medical devices and gauges. But it could also be used in a crude radioactive explosive device — a “dirty bomb” — and underscores the fact that despite some progress since 1991, parts of the former Soviet Union are still littered with sites where lethal radioactive materials remain largely unsecured.
The Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg reported on January 9 that the levels of radiation being emitted from the train car were so high that the Emergency Situations Ministry asked for volunteers to go and unload the cargo. Four people wearing special protective clothing volunteered to venture into the wagon where they discovered the source of the radiation: dust and waste material on the floor, which they swept up and deposited in a bucket. The bucket was then sealed in concrete and stored in a special facility.
Reports say the material emitted 1,000 milliroentgen per hour, which is considered a dangerous level. Most companies handling such material consider 5,000 milliroentgen per 2,000-hour work year to be the “regulatory upper limit” for safety.
“It emits radiation, radioactive waves, and they are harmful, maybe not in mediocre amounts but prolonged exposure,” Noruzbaev said. “If you held it a while, depending on the dosage, you would get burns of varying degrees.”
Of course there may be a logical explanation:
Kubat Osmonbetov, a geologist, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that cesium-137 and cesium-140 are definitely lethal in large doses. Osmonbetov also noted that there is a uranium-processing plant in northern Tajikistan raising the possibility that the Tajik train in question may have been used in the past to transport radioactive material and that remains of that material had somehow been left in the wagon.
With a half life of thirty years and a relatively high rate of radioactive decay, Cesium 137 is pretty nasty stuff. It would be ideal material for a “dirty bomb”. Casey Jones couldn’t be reached for comment, but I’m not too worried about the fact that the Tajik death train was headed to Iran. This seems more like a bad disposal job than a terrorist master plan.