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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 15:12 GMT
Nuclear experts on risky Georgian mission
Radioactive analysts in protective suits
The IAEA will also train a local team on how to retrieve devices
The United Nations' nuclear agency has sent a team of experts to the former Soviet republic of Georgia to help recover two deadly radioactive devices and transport them to safety.

The cylinders may be small, but they are extremely radioactive

Lothar Wedekind
The cylinders, which are believed to have been left over from a Soviet-era generator, were discovered by three men gathering wood from a forest in December in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Seeing the objects had melted the surrounding snow, the men dragged them back to their camp for warmth.

Initial exposure to the cylinders' high levels of the radioactive element, strontium-90, left the men nauseous, and within a week they were suffering from radiation burns.

One of them is now in a very serious condition, and may be transferred to a specialist hospital in France.

"The cylinders may be small, but they are extremely radioactive," said Lothar Wedekind, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"It's crucial that they are removed to a safe place as soon as possible," he told BBC News Online.

Dirty bomb

The IAEA's team will haul heavy protective shields to the area and encase the cylinders, which measure about 10cm by 15cm. They will then transport them to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, if the weather permits.

International experts will discuss the find in Tbilisi
Russian, US and French experts are then due to meet in Tbilisi on Monday to discuss the find, and what to do with it. They are also expected to examine what can be done to track down other discarded nuclear material in Georgia.

Since the 11 September attacks against the United States, fears have mounted that discarded nuclear material could be used to make a so-called "dirty-bomb", a crude device nonetheless capable of spreading high levels of toxic radiation.

"This is a threat we have to take very seriously, particularly given the fact that there is likely to be more such material in Georgia," said Mr Wedekind.

The cylinders are not the first ageing nuclear devices to be discovered in Georgia.

Three years ago, a fisherman found one in a river-bed which also contained large amounts of strontium-90.

See also:

05 Dec 01 | Americas
Alert highlights 'dirty bomb' fears
26 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Bin Laden's 'nuclear threat'
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