Database of radiological incidents and related events--Johnston's Archive

Liya orphaned sources, 2001-2002

compiled by Wm. Robert Johnston
last modified 10 July 2022

Date: 2 December 2001-February 2002

Location: Liya, Tsalenjikha district, Republic of Georgia

Type of event: orphaned radiothermal generators


On 2 December three men found two radiothermal generators in the woods 27 km from Liya, western Georgia. Each contained a 35,000-curie strontium-90 source. The snow was melted to 1 meter from each source with the wet soil steaming. One man picked up one source and immediately dropped it as it was too hot to handle. They took them back to their campsite where they used them as heat sources, with two men sleeping with their backs close to the sources. All three became sick from radiation exposure within 3-4 hours. The man who had touched one source developed burns on one hand on 10 December. The other two men developed burning sensations on their backs on 15 December. All three were hospitalized 22 December.

Georgian authorities attempted to locate the sources on 23 December but failed to due to heavy snow and rugged terrain. A second attempt succeeded on 29 December, measuring the dose rate as 0.13 rem/hour at 5 meters from the sources which were partially shielded by rocks. Dose rate at 1 meter unshielded was 60 rem/hour for each source. On 4 January 2002 Georgia requested IAEA assistance in securing the sources. A joint Georgian and IAEA team attempted to reach the sources on 6-7 January 2002 but was unable to due to heavy snow and rugged terrain. A joint Georgian and IAEA team successfully reached the sources on 2 February 2002 after which they were secured. A team of 24 was required in order to limit each person to no more than 2 minutes total near the sources. Team member doses ranged from 0.02 to 0.1 rem. Subsequently investigators concluded that the men had been using and selling lead from the RTG shields for a period of months; 20 kg of contaminated lead was recovered in a Liya house. One report claims the men were offered $10,000 to transport the sources to Turkey.

All three men developed radiation sickness. One was treated in Moscow but died 13 May 2004 of multiple organ failure, 893 days after exposure; he was estimated to have received about 570 rad. The other two men recovered: one with dose estimated at 500 rad, received treatment in Paris, and the third (who had directly handled the source) had an estimated dose of 200 rad.

Consequences: 1 death, 2 injuries.


© 2004-2005, 2022 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 10 July 2022.
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