Preventing a Dirty Bomb

ENGAGING HOSPITALS, INDUSTRY AND GOVERNMENTS ON RADIOLOGICAL RISKS

Challenge

Ingredients for a radiological “dirty bomb” – among them, the same isotopes that make lifesaving blood transfusions and cancer treatments possible – are located at thousands of sites in more than 150 countries. Many are poorly secured and vulnerable to theft.

Action

NTI works with hospitals, industry and governments to raise awareness about this threat and the availability of safe and effective alternative technologies to replace the isotope of greatest concern, cesium-137, in blood irradiators.

Results

NTI is working with officials and hospitals in Atlanta, New York City and California to take steps or commit to replacing equipment containing cesium-137.

The risk of a radiological “dirty bomb” attack continues to grow. Radical terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State have stated their interest in acquiring and using radioactive material in a dirty bomb, and in 2016, Belgian investigators discovered terrorists monitoring an employee at a highly enriched uranium reactor that also produces medical isotopes for a large part of Europe.

Cesium-137 is an isotope used medical equipment such as blood irradiators. However, it is also the most dangerous of all radioactive isotopes.  If used in a dirty bomb, the highly dispersible powder would contaminate an area for years, costing billions of dollars in evacuation, demolition and clean-up. Cesium-137 blood irradiators are used in many countries around the world, and there are hundreds in the United States alone. 

Fortunately, significant advancements in technology in recent years have yielded safe and effective alternative non-radioactive x-ray devices for sterilizing blood that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Replacing the cesium-137 irradiators with these x-ray devices has security and fiscal benefits: It require less security and completely eliminates the threat, doesn’t require expensive disposal at the end of the machine’s life cycle, eliminates liability and protects hospitals without insurance to cover terrorism losses.   

NTI works with hospitals, governments and the private sector to raise awareness about the threat of cesium-137 and other dangerous isotopes, and to encourage the use, where feasible, of safe and effective alternative technologies for eliminating the threat permanently. In New York City, Mount Sinai Hospital has committed to replacing all of its cesium-137 blood and research irradiators with x-ray technology and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is promoting a city-wide campaign to eliminate all dangerous radioactive sources as rapidly as possible.  In Atlanta, NTI worked with Emory University Hospital, which received a Medical Innovation Award at the 2016 Nuclear Industry Summit for its efforts to reduce radiological threats by replacing a cesium-137 blood irradiator. NTI is now working with officials in California, which has a large number of radioactive sources, to raise awareness and address the risk.

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