U.S. businesses and medical facilities have lost track of nearly 1,500
pieces equipment with radioactive parts since 1996, according to a new
federal accounting of radiological material that terrorism experts warn
could be used in a "dirty bomb" attack against a U.S. city.
The loss of radiological material, ranging from medical diagnostic
equipment to industrial X-ray machines, has been viewed with increased
concern since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has prompted several new
measures to prevent theft, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a
document released yesterday by a House member from Massachusetts.
The vast majority of the missing items contain tiny amounts of
radioactive material and pose little threat, NRC officials said. But there
have been several instances in recent years of lost or stolen hospital
equipment that contains potentially lethal amounts of radioactive cobalt
Such material could be packed around a conventional explosive -- a
combination known as a "dirty bomb" -- to scatter radiation over large
"The commission is concerned about this potential terrorist threat and
has advised its licensees to enhance security," the NRC said in the
report, which was requested by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
The NRC regulates the commercial use of radioactive material. It
acknowledged receiving reports of 1,495 lost or stolen radioactive
"sources" between October 1996 and September 2001; about 660 of the
missing items -- 44 percent -- were recovered, but the rest remain
missing, the agency said.
The agency launched enforcement action against 54 companies and
institutions involved in the incidents and collected fines from 16 of
them. The penalties ranged from a few hundred dollars to $50,000.
Markey, a frequent critic of federal nuclear security precautions, said
the report highlighted a need for better safeguards measures and stricter
"Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have been trying to obtain nuclear
material. We know that the creation of a dirty bomb is one of al Qaeda's
stated objectives," Markey said. "In the past we have been very concerned
about 'loose nukes' in the former Soviet Union, but it looks like we have
the same kind of problem in this country."
In an interview yesterday, an NRC spokesman stood by the agency's
enforcement record and stressed that most of the missing items contained
"very, very small" amounts of radioactive material. Still, the agency
believes the terrorism risk is significant enough to warrant new
safeguards to prevent theft, spokesman Victor Dricks said.
"We have taken this matter very seriously," Dricks said.
Lost and missing radioactive material has been a chronic, if
under-recognized, concern for both the NRC and the Department of Energy
for more than a decade. A DOE inventory begun in 1995 determined that
"tens of thousands" of the agency's radioactive sources could not be fully
accounted for, said Robert Alvarez, a DOE senior adviser during the
Many of the missing items -- including radiotherapy devices that could
deliver a lethal dose of radiation within hours or minutes to someone
directly exposed to the radioactive core -- ended up in dumps and scrap
yards, Alvarez said. Today, radioactive material turns up so frequently in
scrap metal that some recycling plants have installed radiation detectors,
"If one of these things can end up in a scrap yard, it can end up in
the hands of a terrorist," Alvarez said.