American hospitals are not doing enough to make sure that terrorists cannot steal radiological equipment that could be used to build "dirty bombs" for a nuclear attack on the United States, the Government Accountability Office reported today.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) requirements do not consistently ensure the security of high-risk radiological sources at the 26 selected hospitals and medical facilities GAO visited," a report released today warned.
What hospitals use to treat cancer patients, for instance, could be put to much deadlier uses. "In the hands of terrorists, these sealed sources could be used to produce a simple and crude but potentially dangerous weapon, known as a dirty bomb, by packaging explosives with the radioactive material for dispersal when the bomb goes off," the GAO explained. Such an attack would likely not kill many people, studies indicate, but "could produce significant public health consequences" and do more economic damage even than the September 11 terrorist attacks.
GAO faulted NRC for not giving hospitals specific instructions on how to secure this sensitive equipment. "[U]ltimate responsibility for implementing NRC’s security controls
is left to the discretion of the hospital and medical facility personnel that possess the materials," GAO said.
The government tour found that hospitals then used poor judgement in making their own security decisions.
Some examples of poor security GAO observed included: an irradiator, used for medical research and containing almost 2,000 curies of cesium-137, was stored on a wheeled pallet down the hall from, and accessible to, a loading dock at one facility; at a second facility, the combination to a locked door, which housed an irradiator containing 1,500 curies of cesium-137, was clearly written on the door frame; and at a third facility, an official told GAO that the number of people with unescorted access to the facility’s radiological sources was estimated to be at least 500.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has upgraded security at over 300 hospitals with the dangerous material, as of April, but NNSA does not expect to implement improvements at the remaining 1,200 hospitals until 2025.
"In addition, the [NNSA] program’s impact is constrained because: (1) it is voluntary, (2) hospitals and medical facilities will have to maintain the upgrades beyond NNSA’s 3- to 5-year warranty period, and (3) the program does not require facilities to sustain the upgrades," GAO noted.