U.S. Looks to Safeguard Medical Isotopes From Terrorists

The United States is spending millions of dollars to help hospitals reduce the potential for terrorists to acquire sufficient amounts of medical isotopes to build a radiological "dirty bomb," Newsday reported on Monday (see GSN, Aug. 20, 2010).

The National Nuclear Security Administration is funding the effort as part of its initiative to assess and improve radioactive substance safeguards at almost 2,700 sites no later than 2020, according to NNSA Deputy Director Kenneth Sheely.

In excess of 120 of the sites covered by the program are in New York state, including 50 facilities in New York City. Thirty facilities have already been examined in the city, including 18 hospitals. Before the end of 2011, officials want to see safeguard studies completed for all New York City hospitals.

Seven Long Island facilities have undergone security assessments and $800,000 in safeguard improvements have been carried out on three buildings, NNSA officials said.

The North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, comprised of 15 hospitals, has employed grant dollars to improve protection of a radiological machine at the Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan and is requesting additional money to secure another device in Manhasset, hospital system Vice President James Romagnoli said.

U.S. counterterrorism experts fear that widely used and inadequately secured devices that house radioactive materials could create an opening for terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda to produce a dirty bomb, which would use conventional explosives to disperse radiological substance over a wide area (see GSN, Feb. 2).

"It's a very significant concern," said Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.), adding that he spoke in the fall with New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and federal officials about the issue.

The Obama administration requested $25 million in fiscal 2011 for a program to to secure radioactive materials. Congress has not passed a final budget for the current budget year, which ends on September 30, instead approving a series of continuing funding resolutions. The White House is seeking to increase funding for the program to $51 million in fiscal 2012.

Meanwhile, Washington is also training state and local law enforcement officials and hospital security guards, among others, at a specialized security facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The training includes countering a terrorist attempt to invade a hospital in order to obtain radioactive substances.

"What we need to understand is that preparation and prevention at places such as hospitals is an insurance policy and relatively low cost compared to the potential consequences [of a dirty bomb attack]," Federation of American Scientists President Charles Ferguson stated by e-mail.

Enhanced security measures include the purchase for hospitals of mechanical delaying devices that are fixed to blood irradiators and cancer treatment devices to extend the amount of time it would take for an individual to open the machines.

"Buying time is important because a dirty bomb is not a very technologically (sophisticated) device to make," Sheely said (Anthony Destefano, Newsday, March 21).

March 22, 2011
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The United States is spending millions of dollars to help hospitals reduce the potential for terrorists to acquire sufficient amounts of medical isotopes to build a radiological "dirty bomb," Newsday reported on Monday (see GSN, Aug. 20, 2010).