Sea route safe from strontium sources

15 November 2013

Fourteen radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), some used to power Arctic lighthouses, have been recovered from Russia's northern coastline in an international effort to secure vulnerable radioactive materials.

A radioisotope thermal generator (Image: IAEA)

The RTGs were used to generate power in remote locations for lighthouses and other navigational beacons. According to an announcement from the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the 14 units contain more than 37 PBq of strontium-90.

The RTGs were removed from locations north of the Arctic Circle by Russian technical specialists, and transported by helicopter, ship and road to a secure facility where they will be disassembled and their radioactive head sources sent for long-term secure storage. The Russian Federation organised their recovery with support from the USA's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

NNSA deputy administrator for defence non-proliferation Anne Harrington described the achievement as a "significant milestone" for world nuclear and radiological security, and "helped to ensure that terrorists never get their hands on these dangerous materials" which potentially could have been used in a dirty bomb.

Over the past decade, 482 RTGs have been recovered from coastal and non-coastal locations across Russia under the auspices of the US Department of Energy's Global Threat Reduction Initiative, while multinational efforts with financing and support from the USA, Russia, Norway, France, Canada, Sweden and Finland have recovered more than 800 devices. According to the NNSA, approximately 20 Russian RTGs remain in the field.

RTGs use the decay heat of a radioactive substance, typically using a solid-state thermocouple to produce a small amount of electrical power. They have a 50-year history of reliable long-term deployment in space, and one using is currently powering NASA's Curiosity rover.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News