Dirty Bombs Waiting To Happen?

Former Soviet Union Has Supply Of Radioactive Materials

One of the dirty little secrets about international terrorism is that it doesn't take much radioactive material to make a dirty bomb.

And there's plenty of that material in Georgia – the Georgia that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

During a year-long investigation, 60 Minutes Wednesday found that radioactive material just keeps turning up in Georgia – on military bases, in the woods, outside apartment buildings.

It's not difficult to find, and as Correspondent Dan Rather reports, it's not difficult to transport, either.

Georgia, now an independent country, was known for decades as a lawless, corrupt place. And now, terrorism has become a major challenge for Mikhail Saakashvili, the smart, energetic, new president of the country.

"Terrorism is a valid concern from everybody," says Saakashvili, who was educated in the United States.

Is he concerned about the possibility of terrorists getting hold of some of these radioactive materials? "We still have certain signs that we should be concerned," says Saakashvili. "Because terrorists are getting more sophisticated. And sometimes, they could be more sophisticated than the state."

Listen to Tamaz's story, and you'll realize that in Georgia, terrorists don't have to be very sophisticated to find and transport enough radioactive material to make a dirty bomb. Tamaz has been driving his beat-up taxi in the capital of Tblisi for more than 30 years. Last year, he says two customers told him to drive to the train station. Then, they asked him to make a detour and go up a hill.

Tamaz says he wondered where they were taking him. He was asked to stop and load some very heavy boxes into his trunk. On the way back down the hill, the police pulled him over, but only because the cab was so weighted down in the back.

Tamaz said he got out of the car and showed the officer his license. Then he was asked to open the trunk and says he almost fainted when he saw what was inside.

Pictures taken after Tamaz was stopped showed what was in his trunk: heavy boxes lined with lead and stamped with radiation symbols. Inside were two kinds of radioactive material, Cesium 137 and Strontium 90, and some poisonous gas. There are reports the materials were being transported to the Turkish border.

"Concern is that this stuff might end up in the hands of terrorists," says Gela Bezhuashvili, Georgia's national security adviser. "This is a real threat that they, any terrorist group, can find the stuff, take it and then explode it either in Georgia or anywhere else."

Long before Sept. 11, mountainous Georgia was known as a place where terrorists could easily hide. Georgia has a rich, centuries-old culture and heritage, but it's in a dangerous part of the world. Chechnya is just across the border.

Russia has dumped or left all kinds of dangerous materials in Georgia that are difficult to keep secure. And it's not just radioactive materials. A director of one research facility showed 60 Minutes Wednesday in Tblisi a small room with several refrigerators packed with deadly pathogens and diseases.

One refrigerator has a collection of anthrax; another has plague; another tularemia; and another botulism.

The anthrax, plague and botulism -- and lots of radioactive materials -- were all left behind when the Russians departed in the '90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russians abandoned the materials at about 150 military bases without telling or warning anybody. And they didn't leave a clean-up fund.

"We didn't get much cooperation on those issues from the Russians," says Saakashvili. "Unfortunately, old Russian military bases, they left the country without proper agreement on how those things should have been handled. It was rather chaotic process."

In fact, it was so chaotic that no one had any idea what the Russians had dumped there until 1997. That's when a dozen Georgian soldiers accidentally picked up capsules of Cesium 137 at a military base. Most of them received severe radioactive burns.

In 1998 and 1999, radioactive Strontium 90, used by the Russians in an airline navigation system, were found in a remote mountain village. With no biohazard suits available, Georgian authorities did their best to remove the material safely. Then, near an apartment building in Tblisi, more Cesium 137 was found just lying on the ground. In the winter of 2002, more Strontium was removed from a village called Lia. Three woodcutters were severely injured.

Georgia has also been a pipeline for the international transport of dangerous materials. In December 2001, an Armenian man was arrested carrying uranium that apparently had come from a nuclear power plant in Armenia. He told a television reporter that "I wanted to sell each container for $7,000."

During 60 Minutes Wednesday's year-long investigation in Tblisi, they were told someone could buy enough Cesium to make a dirty bomb for $10,000.

Georgia's former environmental minister, Nino Chkhobadze, has also heard reports that Cesium is for sale. She says she's concerned because it would take only a small amount to make a dirty bomb. She said that most of the radioactive material from Soviet days has been recovered, but she also knows that some is still missing.

"Everything that was recovered can be used to create dirty bombs. Terrorism has no borders and it is practically impossible to fight against it if the country is not organized," says Chkhobadze.

The Georgian government insists it has safely stored all the Cesium it's found, but 60 Minutes Wednesday learned that security is rather lax. There are 200 canisters stored at one undisclosed facility. The canisters were sealed, but the radiation level was 80 times higher than outside the building.

In front of the building, there was just one guard with an automatic weapon. There were no guards behind the facility; just a wall, a wire fence and no security cameras. Sasha Gurevich, a former Georgian TV journalist, showed 60 Minutes Wednesday that the crumbling wall is not secure enough to keep out intruders.

"I went over the wall, walked up a little hill, looked around. There was no security so I felt safe. Continued going. I saw the facility it is about 150 meters from the wall. I walked right to it," says Gurevich.

"It was about 10 meters away from me. There was no security around. Nobody was walking around. There was only one rusty lock on the gate, and there was a huge sign of radioactivity on the gate turned around came back, crawled through the wall."

"The government tells us that police should be here in case of trespassing within two or three minutes," adds Gurevich. "Nobody is here. I am standing here for the last 10 minutes now. There is no big gate. There is one little gate and one lock on the gate."

Saakashvili said he needs more money to upgrade security at facilities like this one. And the United States is trying to help. American money will pay for a new building to store Russian radioactive material at a military base near Tblisi.

The American military is also trying to help by training the soldiers at an army base near the capital. From what we saw, they need a few more lessons.

U.S. military assistance to Georgia is expected to keep increasing. Georgia, in fact, has been getting so much help from the United States that some hard-line Russians have been calling President Saakashvili an American spy. He says it's nonsense, but when we talked in New York, he did not hide his affection for the United States.

"I sometimes miss the United States. I miss New York. I love New York. And when I come here, it is very, you know, sentimental and nostalgic for me," says Saakashvili, who lived in New York, and graduated from Columbia Law School in 1994. Back then, his plan was to be a big-time lawyer in New York.

How did he get to where he is now? "I had a choice to make, and the choice was to become a lawyer at Manhattan law firm," he says. "But the point was that I came from the country where, at the time, there was still war. It was ravaged by poverty. It was ravaged by despair."

He says corrupt politicians and Mafia-style gangsters ran the country: "They stole Georgia's natural riches. They stole our taxes. They stole the foreign assistance that came to Georgia."

Saakashvili decided to return to Georgia, start a reform party, and run against the corrupt regime of former President Eduard Shevardnadze. After a contested election, Saakashvili took over and almost immediately began cracking down on corruption. He fired the hated traffic police, who had hassled and shaken down drivers for years, making more in bribes than wages. And he hired a brand new force.

"We basically manage to crack down on corruption and to basically eliminate the issue of corruption," says Saakashvili. "To tackle the issue of corruption in our security service. And this was very important."

But the president knows it's only a first step.

"I think our security is much more efficient at this point, but of course, there still could be something out there that's not fully under control," says Saakashvili.

"I think we are getting there, but we are not there yet. Because we need to have much more efficient system that nothing like this could happen."