NBC Weapons: May 26, 2003

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The defunct Soviet Union, as we now know, had a cavalier attitude towards nuclear material. Tons of the stuff is still lying about unguarded, and a lot of it is disappearing. One recent example is the looting of navigation beacons found along the Baltic coast in the Gulf of Finland. There are about a hundred of these, built during the Soviet era. Since many are in isolated areas, they were equipped with a nuclear powered energy source (a rod of strontium-90 titanate that produced enough heat to generate 40 watts of power for over a decade.) But if a human gets within a foot of the unshielded radioactive rod, they would receive a fatal dose of radiation within the hour. Thieves have taken to stealing metal components of the beacons, to sell as scrap. This includes the lead shield for the radioactive rod. Sometimes the rod itself is stolen, which has lead to the death of at least three people, and radiation exposure to an unknown number of others (one rod was found abandoned near a bus stop.) It is possible for terrorists to use one of these rods as part of a "dirty bomb" (attach the rod to explosives, which will spread the radioactive strontium-90 titanate over a wide area when detonated.) The Russians have been trying to keep this quiet, another old Soviet custom that lives on. Meanwhile, the beacons are still there, waiting for looters, or worse.

 


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