Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

GAO Report on Radiological Security

| July 02, 2014

Recently, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing that highlighted some truly alarming information about the status of radiological security in the United States.  The hearing began with a description from Senator Carper (D-DE) of the Boston marathon bomb attacks. He then speculated on the hypothetical consequences of the use of a Radiological Dispersion Device (RDD) or “dirty bomb” (interestingly, an old high-activity Cs-137 source was removed from Massachusetts General Hospital after the bombing).

The hearing largely focused on a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about the need for additional actions to increase the security of U.S. industrial radiological sources.   Among other things, the report is an eye-opener about how much the United States still needs to do to ensure that Senator Carper’s scenario never occurs. 

According to GAO, radiological material is used across the United States in a wide range of industrial activities, from radiography to sterilization.  As of September 2013, nearly 800 companies in the United States were licensed to use radiological material. Five hundred of those licenses were for radiographic purposes, with approximately 4,000 radiological sources (totaling 214,000 curies) of mostly iridium-192 and cobalt-60 associated with U.S. radiographic machines. An additional 1,736 radiological sources that use high risk material are used for well logging (13,000 curies). In total, there are 1,400 facilities with high risk radiological material containing 126 million curies spread across the United States. To put that in perspective, the source whose theft and recovery in Mexico made headlines in December 2013 contained 3,000 curies of radioactive cobalt-60.

Unsecured skylights at industrial facilities (GAO Report, "Additional Actions Needed to Increase the Security of US Industrial Radiological Sources")

Given how widespread radiological material is, one would think that radiological security would be highly regulated at the national level with strict rules about security. This is, unfortunately, not the case. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for establishing minimum regulations for radiological material security in the United States—except in 37 “Agreement States” where the NRC has relinquished its authority over security of certain materials.

Since December 2005, GAO cited four instances where radiological sources were stolen from trucks in the United States. In one incident, GAO spoke to a senior security official at a company where radiological material was stolen. The official said that, until the theft, he thought the regulations regarding security of radiological material were adequate. The official also noted that some companies used “cheap locks, ineffective alarms, and darkroom doors that can easily be breached,” but that were consistent with regulations.

GAO visited several facilities with weak security measures for radiological sources.. GAO “observed that a warehouse storing 25 iridium-192 radiography cameras had an exterior rolltop door that was open and unattended… a cesium-137 irradiator with approximately 800 curies that was on wheels and in close proximity to a loading dock rollup door that was secured with a simple padlock…unsecured exterior skylights at a number of warehouses that contained radiological sources ranging from iridium-192 radiography cameras to higher curie levels of cobalt-60 and cesium-137 used for industrial research and manufacturing.”

The GAO noted a long-standing issue: NRC and NNSA disagree about whether the current level of security NRC requires for radiological sources is adequate.  As a result, NNSA has been helping facilities voluntarily upgrade security to levels well beyond what NRC requires.  This was part of the focus of the hearing, with some arguing that NRC should require the sort of security measures NNSA is helping facilities put in place.

The report also describes the danger of insider threats at these facilities. Companies apparently have difficulty determining which of their employees are trustworthy and reliable. Although a criminal history check is done for employees, the NRC has no disqualifying criteria, leaving it to companies to decide. In one instance in 2008, a person with a criminal history that included two convictions for making terrorist threats, assault, forgery, failure to appear in court, driving while intoxicated, and driving with a suspended license was granted unescorted access. The criminal history check that the company received from the NRC did not list the terrorist convictions.

Unfortunately, in response to the GAO report, the NRC said that, while the security and control of radioactive sources is a top priority, it would not reevaluate its regulations related to trust and reliability for another 1−2 years.

So what can be done to improve the situation? It turns out it is not actually that expensive to add simple but important security upgrades for some of these facilities. According to the GAO, high security locks cost only $50 each. Installing GPS in trucks costs $50 to $100, with a small monthly fee. We’re not talking about rebuilding Fort Knox.

The detonation of a dirty bomb would be a disaster with immediate national social, political, and economic impacts. As Ann Harrington, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, said during the Senate hearing, a dirty bomb “detonated in a major metropolitan area could result in economic costs in the billions of dollars as a result of evacuations, relocations, cleanup, and lost wages.” For this reason, there needs to be a national policy on radiological security with strong, clear, and consistent requirements that apply to all states. The existence of Agreement States that handle their own radiological security weakens the federal government’s ability to establish such rules and should be reevaluated.

Strengthening security for these dangerous sources should be a priority – but changing the NRC regulations will inevitably take time. In the interim, this is an area, given the low costs of improved security, where the private sector can demonstrate some initiative and act in the public interest.  Congress should continue to support NNSA’s voluntary security upgrades program and should ensure the highest-risk facilities are receiving security upgrades, while also pushing for stronger security regulation. It should also continue to hold informative hearings like the one that took place last month to provide updates on the NRC’s progress, as well as progress on upgrading security at U.S facilities.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Roth, Nickolas.GAO Report on Radiological Security.” Nuclear Security Matters, July 2, 2014, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/gao-report-radiological-security.