Terrorists could make a dirty bomb from common medical device
Affected Countries: united-states;
Scientific experts warned Congress more than a decade ago that just four teaspoons of radioactive cesium-137 — if spread by a terrorist’s “dirty bomb” — could contaminate up to 10 square miles of Manhattan.
The material is commonly found across the United States. Hospitals, blood banks and medical research centers use it in devices called irradiators, which sterilize blood and tissue. Hundreds of the devices are licensed for use, including at least 50 in Southern California.
Each typically contains about twice as much radioactive material as the scientific panel warned could disrupt much of the nation’s largest city.
The panel’s warning in 2008 came with blunt recommendations: The government should stop licensing new cesium-based blood irradiators, and existing ones should be withdrawn from use. Safer devices that use X-ray technology worked just as well, the panel found.
But after protests from hospitals, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission declined to crack down. Instead, the number of licensed irradiators used for blood — and the risk they pose — has grown, a Los Angeles Times investigation shows.
Recent emergencies highlight the danger.
Pennsylvania authorities in 2015 intervened after an improperly secured irradiator was found inside a downtown Philadelphia office building near the planned motorcade route for a visit by Pope Francis.
In May 2019, the accidental release of a small amount of cesium from an irradiator in Seattle contaminated 13 people and caused a seven-story medical research building to be shuttered indefinitely.
The cesium used for irradiators is a dry, talc-like material derived from atomic fuel left over from nuclear power production.
The material is particularly feared by experts on radiological threats because its fine particles disperse easily and can migrate through air ducts and bind tightly to porous surfaces, including concrete. The potential danger is long-lasting: Cesium can keep emitting radiation for nearly 300 years.
“The amount of cesium in one of these irradiators is enough to contaminate and create widespread panic over an extremely large area if dispersed by a terrorist,” said Leonard W. Connell, a nuclear engineer who was among the scientific experts who issued the 2008 recommendations.
Since those recommendations, several developed countries have converted away from cesium. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, by contrast, has not only continued to license new irradiators, it has also declined to require users to post financial bonds that would guarantee proper handling and eventual disposal of the material. Such performance bonds are mandatory for utilities licensed to operate nuclear power plants.
In a memo to the commissioners on April 7, 2016, the commission’s top staff official, Executive Director for Operations Victor M. McCree, wrote that financial assurance requirements “should be expanded” to include cesium irradiators and other similarly significant sources of radiation.
The commissioners have not acted.
The Times interviewed more than 50 current and former government officials, along with medical industry specialists and other technical experts and examined thousands of pages of state and federal records to study the risk posed by cesium irradiators.
A dirty bomb packed with cesium would not kill large numbers of people. Instead, it would be a weapon of “mass disruption” — leaving areas uninhabitable for months or even decades and increasing long-term cancer risks for people who come in contact with it, atomic experts say.
Though a dirty bomb has not been successfully detonated, terrorists have voiced keen interest in doing so. For instance, in 2011 an extremist named Anders Breivik, who killed 77 Norwegians with a fertilizer bomb and firearms, released a manifesto in which he called for followers to help him acquire cesium and other components “to construct and detonate a radiological bomb.”
Federal law gives the NRC broad authority to restrict the use of cesium and other radioactive materials to safeguard national security “or to protect health or to minimize danger to life or property.”
The agency, however, has declined to take action to limit the irradiators, citing a low likelihood of immediate deaths or other physical harm. In doing so, the commission has looked past the mass evacuations, business closures and other economic losses that a dirty bomb could cause.
Last year, a federal task force headed by the chair of the NRC concluded that no basis existed for more than voluntary incentives to encourage users to switch away from cesium irradiators.
As Chair Kristine L. Svinicki wrote in an Oct. 17, 2018, letter to President Trump, “the Task Force concluded that there are no significant gaps in … radioactive source protection and security that are not already being addressed.”
Svinicki declined through a spokesman to answer questions for this article, as did each of the other three sitting NRC commissioners, all of whom are appointed by the president.
Stephen G. Burns, a former commissioner whose tenure ended on April 30, said the NRC had sought to balance public safety with the interests of the facilities using the devices, notably hospitals wary of the commission “regulating the practice of medicine.”
The NRC’s stance toward regulating cesium contrasts with public warnings about radiological-weapon threats issued by every presidential administration since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Trump, in his own 2017 National Security Strategy report, warned that the threat of a dirty bomb “is increasing.”
In a series of investigative reports, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has challenged the commission’s assurances that no meaningful “gaps” exist in how cesium and other radioactive materials are secured.
In 2012, a GAO report described finding a cesium irradiator on an unsecured wheeled pallet near a hospital’s loading dock. At a second facility, investigators found the combination to a lock — intended to secure a cesium irradiator — “clearly written on the door frame.”
The GAO’s most recent report, issued in April, implored the regulatory commission to act more forcefully. David C. Trimble, the analyst who supervised the GAO’s work, recalled that each time his staff has examined uses of cesium and other radioactive materials, “we have identified a vulnerability.”
“We hope that (the) NRC will recognize the significance of the Seattle incident, and reassesses its position to not consider socioeconomic costs,” Trimble told The Times.
The U.S. Department of Energy has also diverged from the NRC’s hands-off stance. The department has worked with users and manufacturers to harden the devices against theft.
In 2015, the department started giving incentives to convert to safer technologies, offering to pay 100% of the expense to remove and dispose of any cesium irradiator, which typically cost up to $200,000 per unit. The department says 108 of the devices have been replaced. Its announced goal is to “permanently eliminate” cesium irradiators by 2028.
“Every irradiator that is replaced represents one fewer opportunity for a terrorist,” the department said in a report to Congress in April.
But, the report added, the “voluntary nature” of the conversions “remains a challenge” to hitting the 2028 goal.
In February 2018, University of California Chancellor Janet Napolitano called for the 10-campus system to begin converting away from its cesium irradiators.
Yet despite those steps, the number of licenses that the NRC has issued for operating cesium irradiators for sterilizing human blood has actually grown: The 370 nationwide represent an increase of 4% since 2011, according to statistics provided to The Times by the commission.
“We were surprised,” Margaret Cervera, a health physicist at the NRC, said of the increased numbers. “We expected them to be going down.”
The total may be larger. Cervera and a commission spokesman, David McIntyre, said the 370 leaves out irradiators that the commission suspected were being used for animal experiments or other research, rather than sterilizing human blood. In April, the Department of Energy reported to Congress that an additional 315 cesium irradiators were being “used primarily for research irradiation.”