WASHINGTON – Federal regulators have failed to implement safeguards to secure radiological materials that could be used in a dirty bomb at nearly four out of every five high-risk hospitals and medical facilities nationwide, according to a draft report by congressional investigators.
Eleven years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks focused attention on the possibility that terrorists could use crude nuclear devices, the analysis by the Government Accountability Office described numerous instances of failure to secure highly radioactive material at hospitals.
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, according to a copy of the draft scheduled for release today and provided to The Washington Post.
The GAO evaluated efforts of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Nuclear Security Administration to regulate and secure the materials.
The report said the NNSA had completed security upgrades at only 321 of 1,503 medical facilities and hospitals it identified as high-risk because they store extensive amounts of radiological material. The NNSA said it would not be able to complete upgrades until 2025, leaving important facilities vulnerable.
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, said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.
We must strengthen domestic radiological security requirements and accelerate efforts to secure all medical facilities with radiological materials.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, blamed security delays on security requirements that are both voluntary and too broad. The report also spelled out numerous examples of poor security.
In one instance, an unidentified big-city hospital kept cesium-137, a highly poisonous radioactive chemical, in a padlocked room, with the combination to the lock written on the door frame in a busy hallway.
At another hospital, the number of people with access to radioactive material could not be monitored because the computer program that tracked comings and goings didnt count beyond 500. Fourteen medical facilities refused to participate in the voluntary safeguards, the report said. Four of the unidentified facilities are in big cities.
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, the GAO said.
The GAO findings underscore the larger problem of storage and tracking of nuclear materials around the world.
Better nuclear safeguards were among the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.
Radioactive material is used in diagnosing and treating cancer and other diseases. In hospital settings it is usually encased in metal. There has been no known terrorist theft of nuclear materials from medical facilities or from nuclear energy reactors or weapons stockpiles.
Still, the terrorism risk has focused on using radioactive material to build rough bombs that could cause widespread economic damage and panic if detonated in a subway or high-rise building, as well as more sophisticated suitcase bombs that could be more powerful.