U.S. businesses and medical facilities have lost track of nearly 1,500 pieces equipment with radioactive parts since 1996, according to a new federal accounting of radiological material that terrorism experts warn could be used in a "dirty bomb" attack against a U.S. city.
The loss of radiological material, ranging from medical diagnostic equipment to industrial X-ray machines, has been viewed with increased concern since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has prompted several new measures to prevent theft, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a document released yesterday by a House member from Massachusetts.
In the past we have been very concerned about 'loose nukes' in the former Soviet Union, but it looks like we have the same kind of problem in this country.
US Rep Ed Markey
The vast majority of the missing items contain tiny amounts of radioactive material and pose little threat, NRC officials said. But there have been several instances in recent years of lost or stolen hospital equipment that contains potentially lethal amounts of radioactive cobalt or cesium.
Such material could be packed around a conventional explosive -- a combination known as a "dirty bomb" -- to scatter radiation over large areas.
"The commission is concerned about this potential terrorist threat and has advised its licensees to enhance security," the NRC said in the report, which was requested by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
The NRC regulates the commercial use of radioactive material. It acknowledged receiving reports of 1,495 lost or stolen radioactive "sources" between October 1996 and September 2001; about 660 of the missing items -- 44 percent -- were recovered, but the rest remain missing, the agency said.
The agency launched enforcement action against 54 companies and institutions involved in the incidents and collected fines from 16 of them. The penalties ranged from a few hundred dollars to $50,000.
Markey, a frequent critic of federal nuclear security precautions, said the report highlighted a need for better safeguards measures and stricter enforcement.
"Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have been trying to obtain nuclear material. We know that the creation of a dirty bomb is one of al Qaeda's stated objectives," Markey said. "In the past we have been very concerned about 'loose nukes' in the former Soviet Union, but it looks like we have the same kind of problem in this country."
In an interview yesterday, an NRC spokesman stood by the agency's enforcement record and stressed that most of the missing items contained "very, very small" amounts of radioactive material. Still, the agency believes the terrorism risk is significant enough to warrant new safeguards to prevent theft, spokesman Victor Dricks said.
"We have taken this matter very seriously," Dricks said.
Lost and missing radioactive material has been a chronic, if under-recognized, concern for both the NRC and the Department of Energy for more than a decade. A DOE inventory begun in 1995 determined that "tens of thousands" of the agency's radioactive sources could not be fully accounted for, said Robert Alvarez, a DOE senior adviser during the Clinton administration.
Many of the missing items -- including radiotherapy devices that could deliver a lethal dose of radiation within hours or minutes to someone directly exposed to the radioactive core -- ended up in dumps and scrap yards, Alvarez said. Today, radioactive material turns up so frequently in scrap metal that some recycling plants have installed radiation detectors, he said.
"If one of these things can end up in a scrap yard, it can end up in the hands of a terrorist," Alvarez said.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company