We Could Not Afford to Wait: Recovering Radioactive Orphan Sources in Georgia

By Nino Chkhobadze

April 4, 2024

IMAGE: A 1997 IAEA mission provides help to Georgia’s authorities in dealing with an emergency situation caused by a misplaced radioactive source. Photo by IAEA.


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Nino Chkhobadze was the former Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Protection of the Republic of Georgia from 1995-2004, during which she led recovery operations for orphan radiological sources. Her story explores the challenges of building up state institutions while responding to emergencies.



NINO CHKHOBADZE: It was impossible to define a structure first. Too many of our people were dying from being irradiated. If you organize the security systems first, you will have no one left to protect.

The first years of independence in Georgia were important, historic times. A completely new legislative system was being created. But we had problems with personnel, human resources, and a catastrophic lack of financial resources. When we started, our buildings didn’t have electricity very often. We could not even spread information because in many cases, remote regions had no electricity.

One of our employees called us and told us that half of Kutaisi was under radiation. The radiation was quite high and they were looking for the source.

The source was found in a warehouse, a railway warehouse. It was cesium.

Three people opened the container. They found some foreign container, opened it, and removed the source. It was shiny, and they touched it with their hands.

Three days later, they went to the clinic because they already had serious burns on their fingers.

Then the investigation started and we discovered that quite a large area of ​​Kutaisi was irradiated because they left the source there.

At that point, the Ministry was not institutionally obligated to carry out radiation safety, but because we were in a similar field, our employee received the message because of the things we had in place to receive messages like this. And practically, for the first time we declared full mobilization with assistance from the Institute of Physics.

Before we arrived, the day before, the soldiers who helped find this source, they made a small mistake. They thought they could return this source to the existing container and just close the lid that the three people opened before and that nothing would happen. But they put it away and then just to be safe, they poured heated lead on top. As a result, the cesium itself rose up and broke the surface, so the security of this container case was compromised.

We did not want to leave it in Kutaisi and we didn’t want to pollute Western Georgia, and there was no place to store it. So we placed the source in ten tons of cement which is what the physicists calculated to transfer it. It was taken and stored in Tbilisi. I will not say specifically where, but it was buried.

After that, we started to systematically work on what to do with radiation sources that exist in Georgia.

Eleven military recruits entered a military warehouse. There, they stole dosimeters and broke them open. The radioactive sources were removed, shared among them, and hidden. Some had them in their jackets, some had them in their pants pocket, and that is how the eleven recruits were discovered.

Lilo’s case proved to us that we have radioactive sources spread very widely. Some sources are orphaned, and these represent a serious threat to the population.

At this time, in the State Security Council, it was decided to create a dedicated commission. The commission made a decision to start by ranking where we are looking for radiation.

First, we considered all the radiation sources. Next was the ranking scheme: we just couldn’t handle how many places the Soviet Army units placed radioactive sources.

We used the elimination method to choose the units close to populated areas. This was our number one goal: to assess their condition.

Then we started working with one of the non-governmental organizations to prepare video clips and release them in the existing media about radiation signs that may accompany devices or equipment where there may be a radiation source.

Not a week would pass without us finding several sources and after just a few years we had removed close to 300 sources.

In 1998, a specific department was created within the Ministry. We had already been doing it, but now we started to function even more systematically. And with the system already in place, we didn’t need a commission anymore.

Importantly, during one of these regular department meetings we learned that someone had thrown a radioactive source into the Enguri River, and its radiation was greater than anything we had ever seen.

In short, as it turned out, the source was removed from an RTG. To put it simply, it is a mini-atomic station which the Soviets brought to the territory of Georgia during the construction of the Khudoni Hydro Energy Power Plant.

What was very interesting for me was to answer all the questions. Several questions arose. We wondered: how many sources had entered Georgia? How many devices have been installed? Where is this documentation? Where is it located? There were many questions.

In short, we could not find two of those imported devices. We could not determine the  whereabouts of the strontium. Six strontium were removed out of a total of eight.

We assumed that these two were still in the Khudoni Valley. We just couldn’t enter the valley to check. And precisely because we could not enter the valley, an incident happened in 2001.

It was a catastrophe because three people were irradiated.

We went to find the source but it’s very difficult to precisely locate a source in mountainous forests like that. We knew that these three people hid the source before coming back to the village.

This is the moment when as a woman I tried to use the power of women as much as possible. At this point, none of the other services knew any information, so I asked three ladies to gather all the local women. They brought every woman and we locked ourselves in a room, no man was allowed inside.

I addressed them, mother-to-mother, and told them about the danger and asked for their help in finding the source. We finished the meeting, and in half an hour one of the ladies brought her husband and she told him, “Now tell this lady where the source is.” And in exactly half an hour we knew where to find the radiation source.

If I knew that this was going to be such a difficult job, I wouldn’t have started it. I wasn’t only organizing radiation safety at that time, we were building and institutionalizing the entire field of environmental protection.

I had many other responsibilities, but it wasn’t just about me. There were a lot of wonderful people by my side.

We had to make multiple decisions quickly. We couldn’t afford to wait. If we waited until the structure was defined a lot of people would have been irradiated. So then what was the point of the structure? That’s why we were doing everything at the same time.

If there was anything that helped me, it was teamwork. The State, scientific institutions, security forces, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, we were all together. We all thought about what we should do. It was teamwork. It wasn’t one person’s accomplishment. It was very attentive listening and being able to take criticism.

The most crucial moments are when someone has doubts and they try to persuade themselves and others that they are right. That is when better decisions are made.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.



Nino Chkhobadze
Chair of the Greens Movement of Georgia

Nino Chkhobadze is the Chair of the Greens Movement of Georgia. She served as the Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Protection of Georgia from 1993-1995, and the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Protection of Georgia from 1995-2004.

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