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New Rule Will Not Secure Radiological Material at Hospitals, Investigator Says

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A cesium 137 device previously in storage at a hospital in New York City. A Government Accountability Office investigator said a new federal rule would not do enough to secure radioactive materials at U.S. medical facilities (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). A cesium 137 device previously in storage at a hospital in New York City. A Government Accountability Office investigator said a new federal rule would not do enough to secure radioactive materials at U.S. medical facilities (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON – A controversial new U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission rule will not do enough to ensure that radioactive materials at U.S. hospitals are protected from acts of theft or sabotage, a senior investigator at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office told Global Security Newswire (see GSN, March 14).

Gene Aloise, director of the GAO natural resources and environment team, released a preliminary report earlier this month finding “that NRC’s security controls for hospitals and medical facilities do not prescribe the specific steps that must be taken to protect their radiological sources,” and that the materials are vulnerable as a result.

The report provided several examples to illustrate this point, including one in which workers had written the access code to a hospital blood bank containing a cesium blood irradiator next to its doorway in a busy hallway.

At another hospital, an irradiator was sitting on a wheeled pallet in a publicly accessible building, in a room not far from an external loading dock. The hallway leading to the room had a camera, but it was pointed away from the room, auditors found.

Such lax security is a problem, the report said, because terrorists could use such radioactive materials to construct a so-called “dirty bomb” -- a crude weapon that could use conventional explosives to disperse harmful radiation throughout an area. Accidents or acts of terrorism using the type of radioactive materials found in hospitals can do significant damage, according to the report, which cited a 1987 incident in Brazil in which an accident involving a medical device containing cesium led to four deaths and necessitated a cleanup involving the demolition of homes and the disposal of 3,500 cubic meters of radioactive waste.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has identified approximately 1,500 hospitals and medical buildings in the United States that contain “high-activity radiological sources,” according to the GAO report.

In some cases U.S. hospital personnel responsible for leading radiological security efforts complained that they lacked expertise in that work, the report said. They told GAO investigators “that it would have been helpful if NRC’s controls were more specific so that [they] would be in a better position to determine what security measures were necessary” to provide adequate protection, according to the report.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials did not testify at a March 14 hearing in which Aloise detailed the findings for a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee. Afterward, however, the agency provided the panel with a two-page response to the GAO criticisms, in which it argued that the report provided “an incomplete picture of the NRC’s … security program.”

The commission uses “a multilayered approach for the security of radioactive material … providing a nonprescriptive framework that allows [organizations authorized to use radioactive materials] to develop a security program of measures specifically tailored to its facility,” the response says. The program includes background checks, controlling personnel access to areas where radioactive materials are located and “coordination and tracking of materials shipments,” the commission said.

Regarding the concern that security was unfamiliar territory for hospital workers and that the requirements were vague, the commission said its forthcoming new rule requires facilities “to develop and maintain a documented security program and conduct periodic training on the requirements of the program to licensee personnel,” the NRC response says.

The commission endorsed a nearly-complete draft of the rule on March 16, two days after the GAO concerns became public. The rule, which will take effect one year after it is published in the Federal Register with minor changes, establishes security requirements for what the International Atomic Energy Agency has deemed the most risk-significant radioactive materials, as well as for shipments of small amounts of irradiated reactor fuel. It covers materials used not only at medical facilities but also those used by the oil, gas and other industries.

Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Homeland Security Oversight subcommittee that requested the study and hosted the hearing, did not comment directly on the rule but said in a statement to GSN that he was “carefully monitoring agency responses to GAO’s findings and their efforts to address the identified vulnerabilities.

“If unacceptable security gaps are not corrected immediately, I plan to work with my Senate colleagues on legislation that will mandate improvements to our domestic radiological security,” said Akaka, who is due to retire from the Senate early next year.

Aloise, however, is already predicting that the new rule will not fix the problems addressed in his report. In an interview with GSN, the investigator noted that the rule in large part codifies existing NRC security orders made since the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks. Though the commission purports to go beyond the existing mandate in the new rule, Aloise raised doubts that its impact would change the GAO assessment of the security issue.

The new rule was already controversial. Some state regulators say it does not do enough to protect radioactive materials from being used by terrorists, while others, backed by industry groups, say it is overly burdensome.

The Washington state Health Department in 2011 blasted an earlier draft of the NRC order, saying it “misses the mark” in several areas where state officials believe more robust security measures are needed.

For example, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire (D) in 2008 petitioned the federal commission to either require that trucks carrying certain quantities of radioactive material use GPS tracking or to grant states the authority to require use of the technology, state officials noted in comments on the commission’s proposed rule. Gregoire cited instances in which trucks carrying radioactive material were stolen as evidence of the need for such requirements, state officials added, saying that “it only takes one to become the terrorist event none of us wants to see.”

Specifically, the governor’s petition addressed “Category 2” sources of radioactive material, those the International Atomic Energy Agency believes “could” cause permanent injury to people following exposure for “minutes to hours” and “could possibly” be fatal if exposure lasted “hours to days.”

However, the commission rejected Gregoire’s petition in its approved version of the new rule, saying “GPS tracking is neither justified nor necessary” for Category 2 materials. The rule only requires that Category 1 materials be tracked using GPS or other “telemetric position monitoring” technology.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog defines Category 1 materials as those that “would be likely” to cause permanent injury via exposure for “more than a few minutes” and “would probably” be fatal if exposure lasted “a few minutes to an hour.”

Washington state officials also said federal regulators should require licensees to notify local law enforcement officials of every site that uses category 1 and 2 materials, regardless of the duration of that use. Facing pressure from industry and other state regulators, the commission removed the proposal to require such notification from the final rule, however.

The Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors, which represents some state regulators, said that, in many cases firms licensed to use devices that contain radioactive sources are “notified of the necessity of work on the same day the work is required” and that such “jobs often involve repair of critical oil and gas infrastructure which could be delayed while attempting to determine which [local law enforcement agency] has jurisdiction.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nuclear power industry and submitted comments on the proposal that were also endorsed by the radiopharmaceutical industry, said it was “unrealistic an unnecessary to require licensees to provide advance notification to [local law enforcement officials] of work at temporary job sites.”

In general, the proposed rule “will have significant regulatory burden, does not appear to have a clear analytical basis” and is not “risk-based,” the industry group says.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has established a voluntary program in which it pays some hospitals and other facilities to upgrade their radiological security -- by installing systems such as remote monitoring systems, surveillance cameras, hardened doors, iris scanners, motion detectors and tamper-proof alarms -- and train their staff.

In a March 22 letter, Akaka asks Senate appropriators to boost funding for this Domestic Material Protection program – part of the NNSA Global Threat Reduction Initiative – to $75 million in fiscal 2013 in light of the GAO findings. The Obama administration has requested $55 million for the program, while Congress in fiscal 2012 appropriated $51 million.

In some cases hospitals turn down NNSA assistance rather than pay what Aloise estimates is less than $10,000 per year to maintain the upgrades after a three-to-five-year NNSA warranty expires. Aloise said these rejections come despite the federal agency offering to shoulder what NNSA estimates indicate is more than $300,000 in start-up and installation costs per facility.

“Some just have not bought into the security culture yet,” Aloise said. “They say ‘you’re asking us to protect against something that could happen’ – I tell them yes, that’s the point.”

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