Georgia

UN to assess Georgia amid atomic security concerns

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By Louis Charbonneau

VIENNA, June 15 (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday it was sending inspectors to the former Soviet republic of Georgia and diplomats said the team hoped to track down any lost bomb-grade atomic materials.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also trying to set up a mission to Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region to find any weapons-grade plutonium or highly-enriched uranium that may have gone missing from a nuclear institute in rebel- controlled Abkhazia, diplomats close to the IAEA said on condition of anonymity.

"There will be a trip to Georgia with senior safeguards inspectors," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

"It will be the first meeting with the new government and will focus on implementation of safeguards and the Additional Protocol in all of Georgia," she added.

While this technically includes Abkhazia, diplomats said going into the unstable breakaway region will require special security arrangements that the IAEA is still trying to organise.

Georgia, whose President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power after a pro-Western "Rose Revolution" in 2003, ratified the Additional Protocol in that year.

It is an agreement that gives IAEA inspectors the right to conduct more intrusive, short-notice inspections than standard safeguards checks under the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

A Western diplomat from a country on the IAEA's board of governors told Reuters that the inspectors would arrive in Georgia "in the coming weeks", though he gave no date.

Like many states in the former Soviet Union, Georgia has had problems with the disappearance of dangerous radioactive materials that could be used in a so-called "dirty bomb", when an explosive like dynamite is laced with radioactive substances to spread them over a wide area.

MISSING PLUTONIUM AND ENRICHED-URANIUM?

In addition to incidents of trafficking of radioactive materials in Abkhazia, there are also concerns that the most precious of nuclear materials -- weapons-grade highly enriched uranium and plutonium -- have gone missing, diplomats said.

Georgia lies in the Caucasus mountains and is racked by conflicts over the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Shortly after insurgents captured the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi in 1993, Georgian scientists fled from an atomic physics institute there and its nuclear stocks vanished.

One U.N. diplomat said there were concerns that "around 9 kg of plutonium" -- enough for one bomb -- may be missing.

"The Russians did an inspection at Sukhumi and found traces of plutonium there," a diplomat said, declining to give details.

Diplomats in Vienna said around 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of weapons-grade enriched uranium is also believed to be lost, though a Russian government official denied this. It takes around 25 kg (55 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium to make a standard atomic bomb.

A Georgian official agreed that questions remained about Abkhazia.

"I cannot rule out that some radioactive and nuclear material may still be there (at Sukhumi)," Soso Kakushadze, head of the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Department of Georgia's Ministry of Environment, told Reuters in Tbilisi.

"I also cannot rule out that they've got illegal nuclear materials there. Everything needs to be checked," he added.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze and Niko Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi and Maria Golovnina in Moscow)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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