U.S. hospitals and medical facilities may not be doing enough to secure storage of cesium-137 and other high-risk radiological sources that could be used to construct a dirty bomb, according to a study of 26 hospitals conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
GAO completed the study to determine the extent to which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) requirements ensure the security of radiological sources and assess the status of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) efforts to improve security at medical facilities.
“NRC requirements do not consistently ensure the security of high-risk radiological sources at the 26 selected hospitals and medical facilities GAO visited,” according to the office, which described security requirements as broad and lacking specific recommendations, such as use of cameras or alarms.
During its site visits, GAO found examples of poor security at some hospitals, including:
- An irradiator containing almost 2,000 curies of cesium-137 stored near, and accessible from, a loading dock;
- A note containing the combination for a locked door, which housed an irradiator containing 1,500 curies of cesium-137, posted on the door frame; and
- Provision of unescorted access to the hospital’s radiological sources to at least 500 people.
Since March, NNSA has spent $105 million to complete security upgrades at 321 of the 1,503 U.S. hospitals and medical facilities with high-risk radiological sources, according to GAO.
Half of the 26 hospitals in the study had volunteered for the NNSA program, and received upgrades such as remote monitoring systems, surveillance cameras, iris scanners and tamper alarms.
However, the organization identified two problems with the program. First, all upgrades will not be complete until 2025, leaving some sites potentially vulnerable. In addition, sites can decline to participate in the voluntary program. “To date, 14 facilities [housing a total of 41,000 curies of high-risk sources], including four in large urban areas, have declined to participate.” At least one non-participant has cited cost concerns.
GAO wrote, “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 organization concluded with four recommendations:
- NNSA, in partnership with NRC, should increase outreach efforts to raise awareness of the security upgrade program;
- NRC should strengthen security requirements by developing specific measures;
- NRC and state inspectors should receive more comprehensive training to improve their security awareness and ability to conduct related security inspections; and
- NRC should supplement existing guidance for facility officials in how to adequately secure equipment containing high-risk materials.