MICHELE NORRIS, host:
An investigation is underway in the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan. Authorities want to know why a train traveling to Iran was carrying radioactive cargo. It was not enough to make a weapon, but the Kyrgyz government says it still doesn't know how it happened.
From the capital, Bishkek, NPR's Ivan Watson reports.
(Soundbite of train passing)
IVAN WATSON: Every day, cargo trains roll out of Belovodskaya station. Many of these rusting locomotives are headed across the border to other Central Asian states, which were also once part of the Soviet Union.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language).
WATSON: This station is where emergency workers gathered on December 31st to greet one train that was turned back after it set off radiation detectors in Uzbekistan while en route to Iran.
Specialists pinpointed one wagon, which was emitting radiation at levels 1,000 times higher than normal. Emergency workers say the source lay in a pile of dirt and garbage beneath 50 tons of scrap metal.
Captain Almanbek Adakeyev(ph) led a team of four who volunteered to clean up the radioactive muck by hand.
Captain ALMANBEK ADAKEYEV (Kyrgyzstan Resident): (Speaking in foreign language).
WATSON: To avoid contamination, we went in one a time for periods of less than a minute each, Adakeyev says, adding, it was not a pleasant operation.
Kyrgyz newspapers report this is the third time in three years authorities have intercepted trains leaving Kyrgyzstan with radioactive cargo. In this case, Kyrgyz officials say the substance consisted of several grams of caesium-137. They say it's still a mystery how and when it got onboard the train. Caesium-137 is often used in medical and industrial instruments.
Alexander Melikishvili of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies says in powder form, caesium-137 could also be used to make a dirty bomb.
Mr. ALEXANDER MELIKISHVILI (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies): From the perspective of a terrorist, the ideal device would entail caesium-137 with some sort of conventional explosive.
WATSON: There was not enough caesium-137 aboard the train for a weapon, prompting some to conclude it accidentally got mixed in with the scrap metal. The Central Asian republics are littered with former Soviet nuclear test sites, uranium-processing plants, and radioactive waste dumps.
Roger Kangas of the National Defense University in Washington says cash-strapped governments like Kyrgyzstan's have a hard time securing this radioactive legacy of the Soviet Union.
Dr. ROGER KANGAS (Professor of Central Asian Studies, National Defense University): When you come up against porous borders, problems of corruption, the profitability of perhaps shipping some of this material out, you can see they're really up against a tall challenge here.
WATSON: Last spring, two former government officials stood trial in neighboring Tajikistan for allegedly trying to sell canisters of plutonium and caesium-137 on the black market. Watchdog organizations say nuclear smugglers are arrested in this region every year.
To combat the trade in radioactive goods, the U.S. and Russia have distributed radiation-detection equipment for use at Central Asian border checkpoints. But before it was stopped last month, Kyrgyzstan's radioactive cargo train apparently passed through at least two of these borders undetected.
Again, nuclear nonproliferation expert Alexander Melikishvili.
Mr. MELIKISHVILI: The radiation control at the borders is the line of defense that allows - in effect, if it's properly carried out, allows the - stops the illicit trafficking.
WATSON: Today, the Kyrgyz government announced it would request help from the International Atomic Energy Agency to install more radiation detectors on its borders.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Bishkek.
NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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