NRC must crack down on hospital radiation security breaches

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The right to use dangerous radioactive source material for radiation oncology comes with a huge responsibility.

It does not end with immediate protection for patients, families, and hospital personnel. It extends to enforcing security measures for their handling and storage. Radiation oncology staff undergoes Nuclear Regulatory Commission training and licensing to assure that cesium-137, strontium-90 and other highly radioactive sources do not fall into the wrong hands.

A Government Accountability Office report issued on Sept. 10, the day before the 11th anniversary of the catastrophic World Trade Center terrorist attack, reveals that these reasonable practices are sometimes not followed.

It would be easy to dwell here on the ludicrous situations uncovered by GAO as its inspectors toured 26 hospitals and health clinics that formed the basis of their report.

Still, a dirty bomb attack involving stolen radioactive source material could lead to the loss of human lives, the long-term evacuation of urban centers, and decontamination efforts consuming months of time and tens of billions of dollars. The fact that cesium-137 could be stored on a wheeled pallet within easy walking distance of a hospital loading dock requires immediate remediation and disciplinary action.

I agree with the GAO recommendations to assure consistently tight controls over radioactive materials at the nation's hospitals. Straightforward regulations for material storage, handling, and personnel security clearance are needed. Better training and periodic testing of onsite NRC-licensed personnel and state inspectors should be implemented, as well.

Moreover, the National Nuclear Security Administration should accelerate its program of security upgrades. All 1,503 U.S. health facilities that use high-risk radiological sources could be equipped with security cameras, doors, iris scanners and tamper alarms to protect their isotope inventories. The NNSA program should be completed sooner than the planned date in 2025. Hospital participation should be mandatory.

Finally, the NRC should enforce regulations that already are in place concerning the transportation, handling, and storage of radioactive materials. Periodic inspections--a responsibility delegated to the states--should be rigorous and conducted consistently from state to state. Penalties for noncompliance should include fines, mandatory retraining and testing, and personnel de-licensure in severe cases.

The value of this form of homeland security cannot be underestimated. By tightening security, the radiation oncology personnel responsible for the handling and storage of radioactive source material can deny terrorists easy opportunities to carry out attacks.