‘Dirty bomb’ threat at hospitals remains, GAO report says

September 10, 2012

Nearly four out of five high-risk hospitals nationwide have failed to implement safeguards to secure radiological material that could be used in a “dirty bomb,” according to a draft report by congressional investigators.

Eleven years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks focused attention on the possibility that terrorists could use crude nuclear devices, the analysis by the Government Accountability Office described numerous instances of failure to secure highly radioactive material at hospitals.

“Medical facilities currently are not required to take any specific actions to make sure these materials are safe, and many have very sloppy practices, which is remarkable nearly 11 years after 9/11,” the report says, according to a copy of the draft scheduled for release Tuesday and provided to The Washington Post.

The GAO evaluated efforts by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Nuclear Security Administration to regulate and secure the materials.

The report said the NNSA had completed security upgrades at only 321 of 1,503 medical facilities it identified as high-risk because they store extensive amounts of radiological material. The NNSA said it would not be able to complete upgrades until 2025, leaving important facilities vulnerable.

“Unsecured radiological materials at hospitals across the country could be used by terrorists to build a dirty bomb that would have devastating social and economic consequences,” said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management.

“We must strengthen domestic radiological security requirements and accelerate efforts to secure all medical facilities with radiological materials,” Akaka said.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, blamed delays on security requirements that are voluntary and too broad. The report also spelled out numerous examples of poor security.

In one instance, an unidentified big-city hospital kept cesium-137, a highly poisonous radioactive chemical, in a padlocked room, with the combination to the lock written on the door frame in a busy hallway.

At another hospital, the number of people with access to radio­active material could not be monitored because the computer program that tracked comings and goings didn’t count beyond 500.

Fourteen medical facilities refused to participate in the voluntary safeguards, the report said. Four of the unidentified facilities are in big cities.

“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 GAO said.

David McIntyre, a spokesman at the NRC, said in an e-mail that the agency and state regulators have imposed tougher security requirements on facilities with licenses for radiological material since the 2001 attacks. He also said the NRC and the NNSA cooperate in the voluntary security program.

The GAO findings underscore the larger problem of storage and tracking of nuclear materials around the world.

Better nuclear safeguards were among the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

“We always regarded it as one of the most important,” former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean, who chaired the commission and keeps track of compliance with its 41 recommendations, said in an interview. “A nuclear terrorist attack is not the most likely, but it could be the most catastrophic.”

President Obama has called nuclear security a top national security priority, and he and other world leaders pledged cooperation against the risk of proliferation from outlaw nations such as North Korea during a nuclear security summit in March.

Radioactive material is used in diagnosing and treating cancer and other diseases. In hospital settings, it is usually encased in metal. There has been no known terrorist theft of nuclear materials from medical facilities.

Still, the terrorism risk has focused on the use of radioactive material to build rough bombs that could cause widespread economic damage and panic if detonated in a subway or high-rise building as well as more sophisticated “suitcase” bombs that could be more powerful.

Al-Qaeda has long sought weapons of mass destruction, though its actions have focused on more conventional bombs.

More than a decade after it launched the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, al-Qaeda is described by counterterrorism experts as a significantly weakened organization. The disruption of an underwear bomb plot developed in Yemen this year underscored the organization’s vulnerability as much as its dedication to continuing to develop plots against U.S. targets.

But officials and experts have voiced growing concern about al-Qaeda’s ability to exploit instability in the Middle East to forestall its demise at the same time that the turmoil has complicated counterterrorism relationships for the United States.

Insurgencies in Syria and elsewhere have made al-Qaeda “operationally active in an environment in which their growth and activity is not being checked,” said Juan Zarate, who was a counterterrorism adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is the most potent threat to the United States, officials said, because it remains committed to trying to hit U.S. targets in creative ways.

“The threat is still high out of Yemen, and it’s a really dynamic time in places like Egypt, Syria and across North Africa,” a U.S. counterterrorism official said.

Greg Miller contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.
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