Lost radioactive material may be used to make 'dirty bomb'

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators have documented 1,300 cases of lost, stolen or abandoned radioactive material inside the United States over the past five years and have concluded there is a significant risk that terrorists could cobble enough together for a dirty bomb.

Studies by the Energy Department's Los Alamos laboratory and the General Accounting Office found significant holes in the nation's security net that could take years to close, even after improvements by regulators since Sept. 11, 2001.

The report concludes that the threat of a so-called dirty bomb that could disperse radiological materials across a wide area "appears to be very significant, and there is no shortage of radioactive materials that could be used." Security improvements under way "are unlikely to significantly alter the global risk picture for a few years," it added.

The Los Alamos analysis specifically cited concerns about the transportation of large shipments of radioactive cobalt from industrial sites, as well as lax security at hospitals that use radiological devices to treat and diagnose patients.

NRC commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. said the government was undertaking a first-ever inventory of who possesses radioactive materials and how much they possess.

Two universities told the GAO about security problems with nuclear materials, specifically cases in which doors to rooms with the materials had been found unlocked or open.

The congressional investigators found that many of the 114 universities that possess, from earlier experiments, the radiological material plutonium-239 have tried unsuccessfully to return it to the government. The Energy Department doesn't have enough secure storage space, the investigators said.

The GAO and Los Alamos security reviews made several recommendations. They include keeping licensed sources from getting radiological materials until after they are inspected, improving structural security at high-risk locations and working with regulators to toughen controls.

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