By Anthony Destefano
Federal officials have been pumping millions of dollars into tighter security at hospitals in New York City and on Long Island to safeguard radioactive materials.
Major health care facilities are the focus of the effort because they use medical isotopes that could be the basic ingredients for radiological weapons known as "dirty bombs."
The security cash comes from the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy that wants to review and enhance radiation security at nearly 2,700 significant sites by 2020, according to Kenneth B. Sheely, deputy director of the nuclear agency. More than 120 are in New York State, with more than 50 in the city and at least 11 -- mostly hospitals -- on Long Island. Federal officials wouldn't identify the hospitals, but several say they are participating.
James Romagnoli, vice president for protective services for North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, said the 15-hospital group has used grant money to upgrade security around one radiological device in Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan and is seeking funds for another in Manhasset.
While no stolen radioactive products have been used in a dirty bomb built in the U.S., federal officials cite intelligence that terror cells have tried to build the devices known to cause havoc in metropolitan areas.
"It's a very significant concern," Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said, adding that he met last fall with NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and federal officials in Manhattan for a briefing on the risk of a dirty bomb blast and countermeasures.
The federal government budgeted $25 million nationwide in fiscal 2011 for the voluntary radiation security program -- an amount the Obama administration wants to double to $51 million in 2012. The government is spending hundreds of thousands dollars to train local and state police, and hospital security forces, at a national security center in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
"What we need to understand is that preparation and prevention at places such as hospitals is an insurance policy and relatively low cost compared to the potential consequences [of a dirty bomb]," Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in an email.
A dirty bomb could spread significant radioactive contamination over scores of city blocks. "One [radioactive] source from one blood irradiator" -- a medical device that uses radiation to sterilize blood before transfusion -- "could cause billions of dollars of damage," said Sheely.
Federal investigators point to the arrest of a terror suspect caught in England in 2006 who authorities say plotted with al-Qaida to attack the New York Stock Exchange with a dirty bomb. Jose Padilla, the American citizen and al-Qaida sympathizer convicted on terror charges in 2009, allegedly trained in Pakistan to make bombs.
Also of concern to federal officials are instances of theft of dangerous materials, including some 19 vials of Cesium-137, stolen from a locked safe at a hospital in Greensboro, N.C., and never recovered.
Since 2009, $7 million has been spent on training security personnel, including the NYPD, New York State Police, the state Department of Health, city hospitals and federal officials through a series of combat alarm scenarios staged at the national security and nuclear research facility in Oak Ridge. Suffolk police are planning to train this year, and Nassau police are considering it.
Last November, a Newsday reporter was the first journalist allowed into the high security nuclear facility to watch the three-day training program.
Security staff from hospitals, universities, police departments and government agencies trained through scenarios in which terrorists tried to breach security to steal radioactive materials from a small hospital.Seven buildings on Long Island have been reviewed, and $800,000 in security upgrades completed on three, said officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration. This year, upgrades will be completed on four more Long Island facilities.
To frustrate efforts to steal radioactive materials, federal officials are helping hospitals and police to put in place several layers of security hardware: remote monitors for radiation devices, anti-tamper devices, surveillance cameras and radiation detectors. They work like electronic tripwires that can be hooked up to remote law enforcement monitoring stations, officials said.