KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images
A radioactive warning symbol
Calibration devices that may contain radioactive material were reportedly stolen from a contentious nuclear power plant that is under construction Jan. 18 in Dabaa, Egypt. Due to the small amounts of radioactive material that would be in each device, the threat of malicious exposure to radiation is very low, though accidental exposure is a possibility. In fact, given the public discontent over the power plant, it is likely that the thieves do not know what the devices are and only took them as part of a larger theft intended to delay the plant’s construction.
Egyptian state-run newspaper Al-Ahram on Jan. 19 reported the theft a day earlier of calibration devices that may contain radioactive material from a controversial nuclear power plant under construction in Dabaa, Egypt. The identities of the thieves are unknown, but it is possible that they are local Bedouins, who have been vandalizing and violently protesting against the plant, which is being built on land taken from them without compensation.
If the stolen devices do contain radioactive material, that material could be extremely dangerous, but it is unlikely that the thieves even know what they possess. The radioactive devices were likely just part of a larger theft intended to delay the plant’s construction. For this reason and others, the threat of malicious radiation exposure is very low. Instead, the greater risk is from accidental exposure.
It is still unclear what the stolen devices actually were. An unnamed source at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported Jan. 19 that tools used to calibrate measuring devices were stolen from the nuclear power plant in Dabaa. Subsequently, an official IAEA statement said the stolen items were “low-level radioactive sources.” A statement from Egypt’s Atomic Energy Agency and Ministry of Electricity and Energy, which certainly would have an incentive to downplay the incident’s significance, indicated that the stolen devices were used to calibrate monitoring stations that track the amount of radioactivity at the site. Based on these statements, it is possible that the stolen devices calibrated radiation detection devices at monitoring stations.
Officials have not identified the radioactive material in the stolen devices, but it could be cesium-137. Radiation detection devices need to be calibrated at regular intervals, and cesium-137 is typically used as the radioactive source during calibration. It appears in amounts of less than 1 milligram in these devices, which gives off much less than 1 curie of radiation, the amount at which the device would require special handling.
But even at that amount, cesium-137 is an extremely dangerous isotope. It emits both gamma rays and beta particles, making it difficult and dangerous to handle, and it has a half-life of 30 years, which extends the time that exposure would be dangerous. In addition to the threat of radiation poisoning and potential carcinogenic effects, cesium-137 also is dangerous because it can mimic potassium, making it easily absorbed by the body, where it can interfere with basic biological processes.
The number of devices stolen has not been released, so it is impossible to know the exact amount of radioactive material the thieves possess. However, the amount is likely extremely small. Consequently, if the material itself were sought for criminal use, it would most likely only be useful to poison a targeted individual. Radioactive isotopes have been used as a method of poisoning before. For example, former Soviet and Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko was killed by exposure to polonium-210 in the United Kingdom in 2006.
The greatest potential threat to the broader populace lies in accidental exposure after improper disposal of the devices containing radioactive material. In 1987, 1,000 Brazilians were exposed to radioactivity when cesium chloride was removed from salvaged medical equipment. Two hundred forty-four people showed significant exposure and four died as a result. In 2010, eight people in India were hospitalized due to exposure to cobalt-60, another radioactive isotope, after an unidentified object was dismantled at a scrap shop. No deaths resulted from the incident.
If cesium-137 was in fact the material in the stolen devices, the overall risk for exposure is low. The radioactive material would be securely contained within the devices and would need to be removed, either by brute force or a systematic dismantling of the device. Additionally, each device contains such a small amount of the radioactive material that the yield from each device would need to be combined in order to produce an amount of any significance. That requires knowledge of the purpose of the devices.
This is knowledge that the thieves probably do not have. In addition to participating in violent clashes that have killed two people and injured at least 41 over the past week in Dabaa, Bedouins have damaged an estimated 500 million Egyptian pounds (about $83 million) worth of machinery at the nuclear power plant and stolen several computers, cables, furniture and transformers from it. The calibration devices may have been another item these Bedouins took, not knowing they contain radioactive material.
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