Radiological Substance Security Falls Short at U.S. Medical Sites: GAO

A mock victim of a radiological “dirty bomb” strike is transported to a decontamination tent during a 2003 exercise in Seattle. U.S. congressional investigators have uncovered numerous shortcomings in measures intended to protect sensitive radioactive materials at medical facilities, according to testimony scheduled for delivery on Wednesday (AP Photo/Ted Warren).
A mock victim of a radiological “dirty bomb” strike is transported to a decontamination tent during a 2003 exercise in Seattle. U.S. congressional investigators have uncovered numerous shortcomings in measures intended to protect sensitive radioactive materials at medical facilities, according to testimony scheduled for delivery on Wednesday (AP Photo/Ted Warren).

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has uncovered a number of holes in measures at medical facilities for protecting substances suited for use in radiological "dirty bomb," the New York Times reported on Wednesday (see GSN, March 22, 2011).

Individuals charged with guarding such supplies said they were expected to implement standards "that they did not believe they were fully qualified to interpret," as they had been educated to be medical radiologists or physics experts, GAO natural resources and environment head Gene Aloise said in a prepared statement slated for delivery to a Wednesday hearing of a Senate Homeland Security Committee panel.

In a bid to avert new facility expenses, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission established relatively nonrestrictive guidelines for the protection of radiological substances in medical settings, Aloise is expected to tell the government oversight subcommittee. The standards, though, have produced “a mix of security controls and procedures that could leave some facilities’ radiological sources more vulnerable than others to possible tampering, sabotage or outright theft,” the congressional investigator wrote.

Extremists might attempt to travel into the United States and seize radiological substances for use in an attack, specialists warned following the strikes of Sept. 11, 2001. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved to strengthen requirements for guarding such supplies at sites linked to sectors such as medicine and industry.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, an semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department, has dispersed federal aid to support the protective efforts. To date, the department has put around $96 million toward efforts to guard radiological substances involved in operations at roughly 1,500 medical sites.

Cesium 137 was present at a significant number of the 25 medical sites audited by GAO officials. The substance had the same radioactive intensity as health equipment involved in a 1987 Brazilian incident that killed four people and required $36 million in decontamination expenses.

In one case, a hospital had inscribed the access code for a cesium storage area near its entryway. “The door is in a busy hallway with heavy traffic, and the security administrator for the hospital said that he often walks around erasing door combinations that are written next to the locks,” the prepared remarks state.

“The combination written on the door jamb would be a clear violation,” but the congressional auditors officials have not provided the nuclear commission with data crucial for additional steps, said Brian McDermott, who heads the NRC Materials Safety Division.. “Hopefully when we see the report we’ll have more context,” he said.

A second hospital held radiological supplies in an area with an unprotected glass opening that faced an outdoor area for receiving and sending deliveries.

A hospital associated with a university used monitoring software unable to account for more than 500 individuals permitted to move unaccompanied within the vicinity of radiological materials, making uncertain the number of people who could reach the supplies, a site official said. A separate armed forces health installation gave such privileges to only four people, not including guards.

The United States is still "alarmingly vulnerable" to nuclear extremist strikes, Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said.

“We must strengthen domestic radiological security requirements to prevent unauthorized access to these materials,” the lawmaker added in a prepared statement on the GAO findings (Matthew Wald, New York Times, March 14).

Meanwhile, the European Commission has financed a $4.7 million project expected to yield an experimental portable sensor technology for identifying weapon-capable nuclear and radiological substances, the University of Liverpool announced on Monday.

“Current systems to detect [special nuclear materials] have a number of limitations. Materials tend to be smuggled inside commercial containers and special enclosures inside can minimize the escaping telltale radiation," university physics specialist Christos Touramanis said in a statement. "The system we’re developing will rely heavily on noble gas detection modules supported by robust, lightweight electronics and intelligent analysis algorithms, integrated in portable units that can be used by security personnel at ports of entry ” (University of Liverpool release, March 12).

March 14, 2012
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The U.S. Government Accountability Office has uncovered a number of holes in measures at medical facilities for protecting substances suited for use in radiological "dirty bomb," the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

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