Radiation Trains in Kyrgyzstan

by Joshua Foust on 1/12/2008

There was a mysterious train filled with Cesium-137, bound for Iran. It was nabbed at the border with Uzbekistan, but Kyrgyz officials waited well over a week to disclose the incident. What gives?

Kubanych Noruzbaev, an official from the Kyrgyz Ecology and Environmental Protection Ministry, said the cargo train belonged to a Tajik firm but the cargo was loaded by Kyrgyzstan’s state railway company, Temir, in Kyrgyzstan with other material and was bound for Iran. Noruzbaev also questioned how the train made it so far before being detected by Uzbek border guards.

“It passed through our border, the Kyrgyz border [and] it passed through two border checkpoints in Kazakhstan, entering and exiting [Kazakhstan],” Noruzbaev said. “Only on the territory of Uzbekistan was it discovered, and they [the Uzbeks] sent the train back to us.”

Noruzbaev said the radioactive material should have been discovered long before the train arrived in Uzbekistan. “But how could it happen that it was not detected when it passed through special checkpoints?” Noruzbaev said. “And even more so, how could a [radioactive] source like cesium-137 or -140 pass [without detection]?”

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.

There will most certainly be a very creative explanation for this, though it really does not appear to be nefarious if it’s just waste products on the floor. It could potentially, however, be indicative of sloppiness in handling radioactive material—and that is cause for concern. Especially in the context of all the uranium smuggling uncovered a year ago in Georgia, and the “lost” nukes from Minot Air Force Base in the U.S., the ways in which countries handle their fissile material is a highly sensitive issue. That the train was bound for Iran surely cannot help things, either.

We’ll post more here as we learn more.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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