Report: Nuclear medical equipment is vulnerable to terrorists

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Terrorists could seize medical equipment that use radioactive isotopes and build dirty bombs, according to a December 2008 report from the Defense Science Board (DSB).

More than 1,000 machines in the United States now use the cesium-137, a radiation source for medical research and blood irradiation. Replacing the equipment that uses cesium-137 in blood irradiators "would eliminate the most dangerous domestic RDD [radiological dispersal device] threat," the report noted.

Millions of radioactive devices have no long-term disposal plan, which has raised concern from state and federal authorities as to what could happen to a potential radioactive stockpile.

The board, made up of approximately 40 civilian members who advise the Pentagon on scientific and technical matters, has recommended that the Defense and Homeland Security departments invest $200 million over five years to replace current equipment with cobalt sources or electron beam irradiators.

A November 2008 report from the National Research Council concluded that currently, there are few alternatives for blood irradiation, calling for more security and tamper-proofing of cesium-137 machines.

Richard Benjamin, MD, chief medical officer of the American Red Cross, said that despite the recommendations from DSB, there is currently no other safe and efficient alternative to cesium-137 approved by the FDA for blood irradiation.