Discovering Orphan Radioactive Sources in Moldova
New tools are used to track and recover unaccounted [or unregulated] radioactive sources, called "orphan" sources. Flip through the interactive to read three case studies of how the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and Moldova’s National Agency for Regulation of Nuclear and Radiological Activities (NARNRA) used new tools to help hunt down orphan sources.
Case 1: Surveys & Interviews >
Case 2: Detecting with Online Videos >
Case 3: Using Satellite and Drone Images >
CNS and NARNRA conducted a network analysis of over 1000 individuals found through social media to identify key people and companies with possible knowledge of orphan sources at their places of work. Once contacted, in-person and online surveys were administered so current and former employees could identify and lead inspectors to potential orphan sources.
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Surveys & Interviews
To leverage the institutional knowledge of current and former employees identified on social media, NARNRA and CNS developed a series of interview questions specifically for locating orphan sources. The questions contained example photographs of orphan sources could be at the individuals’ workplace.
After field testing the interview questions, they were incorporated in a survey that was given to 48 current and former employees of companies using radioactive sources, and former Soviet nuclear regulators. Former employees typically completed an in-person interview after being contacted, as seen above, while current employees completed the online survey questions.
In one instance after being surveyed, former employees led investigators to a box of smoke detectors containing Plutonium-239, special fissionable material that should be reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency. These orphaned radioactive sources sat unaccounted for in a facility in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, for
The successful recovery of the smoke detectors containing Plutonium-239 is just one example of how new tools can help regulators tap into institutional memory previously considered lost. In total, these interviews and survey led to the discovery of over 500 orphan radioactive sources, found in Soviet-era smoke detectors, level gauges, and other calibration equipment located at industrial sites throughout Moldova.
After participating in an open source search and analysis training with CNS, a NARNRA inspector incorporated the methods he learned into his work. Upon viewing a YouTube video about a Moldovan brewery, the inspector noticed machinery marked with a radioactivity warning symbol, prompting an investigation.
Detecting with Online Videos
Noting that the brewery lacked licenses for the radioactive sources, NARNRA contacted the brewery’s management to distribute a survey to employees. The survey responses indicated the presence of orphan sources at the plant and prompted a site visit by NARNRA inspectors.
Upon inspection, five unregistered orphan sources were recovered from the plant. Additional searches of the brewery uncovered unused sources for bottling equipment in storage.
Seemingly innocuous equipment, such as a beer bottling machine, exemplifies the challenge of finding and securing orphan sources. For years, brewery employees worked alongside the unregistered equipment, unaware of its potential dangers. Fortunately, in this case, social media helped NARNRA target its search and recovery operations, successfully securing multiple orphan sources.
Throughout Moldova, Soviet-era helicopters and aircraft sit abandoned in public parks, private museums and other public displays. To recover orphan sources, often used in the aircrafts’ gauges, NARNRA inspectors used a combination of satellite and ground imagery to identify potential locations of orphan sources.
Using Satellite and Drone Images
With satellite imagery, NARNRA inspectors identified a military helicopter on the grounds of a wedding venue outside Chisinau. Ground imagery from the venue’s social media profiles and surveys given to employees verified the helicopter’s presence in a display that greeted visitors on their drive up to the venue.
After confirming the helicopter’s presence, inspectors, along with a recovery team, conducted an on-site inspection. They found and secured an orphan source containing Ittrium/Strontium-90 in the helicopter’s ice detector.
In a separate instance, inspectors observed one fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters at a private Soviet military museum. Although satellite imagery alerted inspectors to the possible presence of orphan sources at the museum, there was not enough evidence to justify an on-site inspection.
To get a closer look, NARNRA inspectors built a drone to take photos to verify the presence of certain helicopters that likely contained radioactive sources. With this confirmation, inspectors were able to proceed with an on-site inspection.
On-site, inspectors used dosimeters to check for the presence of radioactive sources. The sources discovered continued to emit low-level radiation long after the helicopters were retired from service. Searches of facilities similar to the two in this case resulted in more than 30 orphan sources being brought back under regulatory control.
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