A dirty bomb threat is lurking in hospitals across the US, with radiological material insufficiently secured in almost four out of five high-risk medical facilities. That’s according to a new draft report by congressional investigators, which states such materials could be used to create a crude dirty bomb.
The draft report, released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), states that demands placed upon hospitals to secure high-risk materials are not being enforced and criticizes a culture of “sloppy practices”:
“Medical facilities currently are not required to take any specific actions to make sure these materials are safe, and many have very sloppy practices, which is remarkable nearly 11 years after 9/11.”
The prospect of terrorists deploying basic nuclear devices is not a new fear, making the failure of so many hospitals to secure highly radioactive material all the more alarming.
The GAO report summarised the measures taken by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to regulate and secure the materials. It concluded that the NNSA had completed security upgrades at only 321 of 1,503 high-risk medical facilities that store significant volumes of radiological material. The NNSA has revealed it will be unable to complete upgrades until 2025.
Senator Daniel K. Akaka, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, told the Washington Post:
“Unsecured radiological materials at hospitals across the country could be used by terrorists to build a dirty bomb that would have devastating social and economic consequences. We must strengthen domestic radiological security requirements and accelerate efforts to secure all medical facilities with radiological materials.”
The GAO report highlighted one incident in which an unidentified hospital kept the highly poisonous radioactive chemical cesium-137 in a padlocked room with the combination to the lock written on the door frame.
At another medical facility, it was estimated over 500 people had access to radioactive material, yet their identities could not be monitored because the computer software used to track arrivals and departures didn’t count beyond 500.