Hospitals are a weak link when it comes to securing radioactive material in the United States even after audits by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state inspectors, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on Wednesday.
Around 1,500 hospitals in the United States contain high-activity radiation sources. Of the 25 visited by the GAO, many had “a number of potential security weaknesses.”
At one hospital, a machine with radioactive material was kept on a wheeled pallet in a room with no cameras located next to a loading dock. Another facility, described as, “a hospital in a major U.S. city,” kept a blood irradiator (a machine that uses radiation applied to blood to treat certain conditions) in a room with a combination lock, but the combination to the lock was kept on the door. At a university facility, a radiation safety officer said that its systems could only hold 500 records at a time of who had access to radiation sources, but more than that had unrestricted access.
Radioactive material cobalt-60, cesium-137, and strontium-90 are usually sealed in metal when used in medical or industrial machinery. The concern is unsecured radioactive material and machinery that when combined with conventional explosives could make a dirty bomb capable of breaking that seal and contaminating a large area.
The report points to a 1987 incident in Brazil involving medical devices that contained cesium as an example of the outcome of a dirty bomb attack. After radiation therapy equipment was left at an abandoned medical facility, two men dismantled it for parts, presumably to sell, and unsealed the cesium. The “glowing powder” made its way around the city until doctors discovered it was radioactive.