U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) today released a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report entitled Nuclear Nonproliferation: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Security of Radiological Sources at U.S. Medical Facilities (GAO-12-925).
"As we remember the horrific terrorist attacks of 11 years ago, this report highlights the troubling vulnerabilities that remain at America's medical facilities," said Senator Akaka. "Unsecured radiological materials at hospitals across the country could be used by terrorists to build in a dirty bomb that would have devastating social and economic consequences. The GAO's report raises many of the same concerns we looked at during a hearing I held in March and I am disappointed the report shows that little progress has been made since then."
Radiological materials are used in essential medical treatments nationwide. However, a terrorist could use these same materials to construct a dirty bomb that could result in injuries or deaths, public panic, extensive decontamination costs, and a lengthy denial of access to the contaminated zone. GAO examined the efforts of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to regulate and secure these radiological materials.
Senator Akaka noted that his home state of Hawaii has a good record of securing these materials.
"I applaud Hawaii for partnering with the federal government and private industry to be a national leader in completing security enhancements on all high-priority radiological materials in the islands. Delays in securing these materials on the mainland U.S. unnecessarily put the American people at risk. We must strengthen domestic radiological security requirements and accelerate efforts to secure all medical facilities with radiological materials."
Currently, medical facilities with radiological materials are not required to take any specific measures to secure them. GAO recommended that the NRC require medical facilities to take specific measures to develop and sustain effective security programs. GAO also recommended enhanced participation in the NNSA's security upgrade program.
The GAO study revealed that:
As of March 2012, NNSA had spent $105 million to complete security upgrades at 321 of the 1,503 U.S. hospitals and medical facilities it identified as having high-risk radiological sources.
NNSA does not anticipate completing all security upgrades until 2025. The delay in completing security upgrades increases the risk that dangerous radiological sources could be used as a terrorist weapon.
To date, 14 facilities, including four in large urban areas, have declined the NNSA security upgrades.
NRC's approach to radiological security is not based on facility specific security risks and results in medical facilities implementing a wide variety of security measures.
The limitations of NRC's security controls are exacerbated because inspectors are not receiving adequate training on the security of high-risk radiological material at hospitals and medical facilities.
NRC has failed to provide sufficient support to medical facilities that are charged with conducting background checks to determine which employees should have unescorted access to equipment containing high risk radiological sources.
GAO's report details several troubling examples of radiological materials in U.S. hospitals that are vulnerable to theft. For example, GAO investigators found one hospital where a radiation safety officer could not account for the total number of people that were allowed unescorted access to radioactive sources, because the computer program used to track access did not count beyond 500. In another hospital in a major U.S. city, cesium was kept in a padlocked room, but the combination to the lock was written on the door frame in a busy hallway with heavy traffic. In yet another troubling case, radioactive material was stored in a room at a hospital with unalarmed and unsecured windows that looked out on a loading dock.
GAO specific recommendations are that NNSA and NRC increase outreach efforts to promote awareness of and participation in NNSA's security upgrade program. GAO also recommended that NRC (1) strengthen security requirements by providing medical facilities with more specific security measures; (2) ensure that inspectors receive more comprehensive training to improve their security awareness and ability to conduct inspections; and (3) supplement guidance for medical facility officials so those officials can better secure equipment with high risk radiological sources and conduct employee background checks.
Senator Akaka is the Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. He held a hearing on March 14, 2012 where GAO testified about its preliminary findings.