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Feds Failing to Ensure Security of Radiological Materials at Hospitals: GAO

A cesium 137 device previously in storage at a hospital in New York City. The U.S. government has failed to implement protections for weapon-usable radiological substances at almost 80 percent of the country’s high-threat health sites, the Government Accountability Office said in a preliminary assessment scheduled for publication on Tuesday (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). A cesium 137 device previously in storage at a hospital in New York City. The U.S. government has failed to implement protections for weapon-usable radiological substances at almost 80 percent of the country’s high-threat health sites, the Government Accountability Office said in a preliminary assessment scheduled for publication on Tuesday (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

The U.S. government has not taken steps to ensure that more than 1,000 medical facilities are adequately protecting substances that could be used to produce a radiological "dirty bomb," the Government Accountability Office said in a report obtained by the Washington Post for a Monday article.

“Medical facilities currently are not required to take any specific actions to make sure these materials are safe, and many have very sloppy practices, which is remarkable nearly 11 years after 9/11,” congressional auditors said in the document to be made public on Tuesday.

The report focuses on efforts by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department.

The National Nuclear Security Administration had finished protective updates at 321 of 1,503 hospitals and other medical sites that use significant quantities of radiological sources for diagnostic and treatment purposes, the report says. The project is not expected to be finished for another 13 years, the nuclear agency said.

Security of such materials at hospitals, industrial plants and other locations has long been a concern, as terrorists could disperse them in an urban setting using conventional explosives.

“Unsecured radiological materials at hospitals across the country could be used by terrorists to build ... a dirty bomb that would have devastating social and economic consequences,” according to Senator. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii),  who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee. “We must strengthen domestic radiological security requirements and accelerate efforts to secure all medical facilities with radiological materials.”

The report offered multiple examples of security failings, including one hospital where toxic cesium 137 was kept inside a locked room in which the combination was marked and easily visible on the frame of the door.

Fourteen medical sites, four of which are in major urban areas, chose not to accept nonmandatory security upgrades, the GAO report says. Its authors said the protective demands themselves should be more specific.

“The longer it takes to implement the security upgrades, the greater the risk that potentially dangerous radiological sources remain unsecured and could be used as terrorist weapons,” according to the report.

 

 

 

 

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