Medical imaging nuclear waste piles up "potential dirty bomb"

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Tubes, capsules and pellets of used radioactive material are piling up in hospitals and research centers across the United States, raising concerns that the stockpile could get lost, or stolen by terrorists and turned into dirty bombs.

The Associated Press (AP) reported that for years, low-level nuclear waste, such as rice-size radioactive seeds for treating cancer and pencil-thin nuclear tubes used in industrial gauges, were sealed in the concrete and buried at a rural South Carolina landfill.

When a South Carolina law took effect July 1, the disposal of nearly all radioactive material at the landfill ended, leaving 36 states with no place to dispose of the material. With offsite disposal no longer an option, labs, universities, hospitals and manufacturers are storing more and more of it on their own property, according to the AP.

State and federal authorities said that the waste is being monitored, but they acknowledged that tracking and inspecting is done infrequently. The AP reported that after dozens of interviews with nuclear waste generators, experts, watchdogs and officials, and according to government documents, thousands of the small radioactive items have already been lost, and worries are growing.

"They'll end up offered up on eBay and flea markets and sent to landfills, or metal recycling plants—places where you don't want them to be," Stephen Browne, radiation control officer at Troxler Electronic Laboratories, a large manufacturer of industrial gauges that use radioactive material, told the AP.

Millions of radioactive devices in use have no long-term disposal plan, including tiny capsules of radioactive cesium isotopes implanted to kill cancerous cells; cobalt-60 pellets that power helmet-like machines used to focus radioactive beams on diseased brain tissue; and cobalt and powdered cesium inside irradiation machines that sterilize medical equipment and blood, reported the AP.