Energy Department Struggles to Secure Unwanted Radiation Sources

(Mar. 3) -The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration has a large backlog of radioactive sources it needs to secure.
(Mar. 3) -The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration has a large backlog of radioactive sources it needs to secure.

The United States is struggling to secure domestic radiation sources as quickly as their owners determine they are no longer needed, the Los Angeles Times reported today (see GSN, Jan. 15).

Each year, the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration records between 2,500 and 3,000 new radioactive items awaiting protection and disposal.

The agency recovered 3,153 sources in 2008 -- its most productive year ever -- but it has a waiting list of 8,800 additional radioactive items and some government sources believe that tens of thousands more orphaned objects have not been reported.

"The world is more dangerous today than when Russia had missiles pointing at us and we had missiles [pointed] at Russia," said NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Kenneth Baker.

A four-person team yesterday recovered 1.3 grams of plutonium kept in a steel container about the size of a film canister. They used a specially coated barrel to hold the material, owned by a Silicon Valley firm that produces radiation-scanning equipment.

"This is a large PU-238 source," said Julia Whitworth, who led the recovery mission in Sunnyvale, Calif. While the isotope could not be detonated in a nuclear bomb, its radiation would pose a significant health hazard if the material entered a human body.

"This type of material ... is one that can make a dirty bomb," which would use conventional explosives to spread radioactive material, Baker said. "One reason we're so scared is there is a lot of this material around the United States" (Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, March 3).

March 3, 2009
About

The United States is struggling to secure domestic radiation sources as quickly as their owners determine they are no longer needed, the Los Angeles Times reported today (see GSN, Jan. 15).