Danger and delay on dirty bombs

By Kenneth N. Luongo
December 16, 2013

When highly radioactive material that can be used in a “dirty bomb” is moved to or from a hospital in New York City, it is done in the dead of night on cordoned streets with high security.

In Mexico two weeks ago, a truck moving a large canister containing radioactive material was hijacked at a gas station — where it had been parked with no security. The cobalt-60 that was stolen from the vehicle and then extracted from its protective lead shield is so potent that it is considered a significant national security threat under U.S. guidelines.

There are now no international mandatory requirements for how to control these dangerous materials — including how they should be transported. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog, has only issued recommendations, in the form of a voluntary Code of Conduct.This disconnect between how nations manage extremely dangerous nuclear materials sought by terrorists creates significant security vulnerabilities. If a dirty bomb is exploded anywhere in the world, it would cross the nuclear terrorism threshold and open the door to further attacks.

An IAEA meeting of 88 nations recently assessed the effectiveness of the Code of Conduct at its 10-year anniversary.  The participants acknowledged that the non-binding status quo is inadequate.

The nations insisted, however, that formalizing the commitments would undermine the voluntary code. So they shelved indefinitely a proposal to make the code legally binding and requiring states adhere to its guidelines.

This issue is ripe for action by the 53 national leaders due to meet at the Hague in March for the next Nuclear Security Summit, a signature initiative of President Barack Obama.

The two previous summits have made critical progress in improving the security of nuclear materials by removing vulnerable stockpiles and encouraging the participants to make commitments to improved security procedures in their countries.  But they have avoided the tough issues — addressing the lowest hanging fruit to maintain consensus among all the participants.

Most challenging for the participants have been proposals to move the nuclear security system from being largely opaque and voluntary to include more non-sensitive information sharing across borders. This change would involve peer review of security operations among nations and legally binding requirements to ensure uniform security around the globe. International peer review is already mandatory to ensure the safety of nuclear power reactors, and the head of the IAEA stated that its application to the security of nuclear materials was a “no brainer.”

Though Obama called nuclear terrorism “one of the greatest threats to global security,” the White House has been sluggish about addressing the dirty bomb threat. In the federal budget he released in April, the Department of Energy’s programs to protect and remove nuclear and radiological materials are cut about 25 percent from 2012, from $181 million to $138 million.

In the United States alone there are now 2,900 buildings containing high-intensity radioactive sources, and 13,000 worldwide. Many are medical, university and research institutions — which could be viewed as soft targets.

Last year, for example, one government investigation found that a hospital room containing a highly radioactive device had the lock combination written on the door frame. Another facility had allowed hundreds of people access to their radioactive material.

The Energy Department has now completed security upgrade projects at major hospitals in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Radiological source protection has been significantly improved by fully securing medical devices that use the radioactive material. The authorities put locks and cameras in the rooms where the devices are located, and began working with local police forces, training them to respond to dirty bomb emergencies.

But numerous other buildings are still in need of upgrades at home and abroad. Transportation security and replacement of the dangerous radioactive sources with commercially available non-lethal alternatives also needs to be urgently addressed in many countries — including in the United States.

At the very least the summit participants should agree to secure every dangerous radiological source in public buildings — whether government- or privately-owned — within two years. That is when the next, and likely final, security summit will be held, in the United States. The additional security costs are affordable, especially when compared to the price of failure.

The consequences of any terrorist nuclear attack anywhere will be catastrophic. If the dirty bomb threshold is crossed, other attacks could follow, potentially including the use of nuclear weapons materials. In the face of this obvious threat, insufficient international action is inexcusable.


PHOTO (TOP): A German police officer uses a Geiger counter to measure the radiation of a Castor container on a transport train, during a stop in Neunkirchen near Saarbruecken, November 25, 2011. REUTERS/Alex Domanski

PHOTO (INSERT): Policemen stands guard near an area where dangerous radioactive medical material was found on a truck, in the town of Hueypoxtla, near Mexico City, December 5, 2013. REUTERS/Henry Romero


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