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'Dirty bomb' scare prompts clampdown on lab security

Naturevolume 417page776 (2002) | Download Citation

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Universities in the United States are bracing themselves for a fresh security clampdown — on the way they handle radioactive materials used in research and medicine.

Pressure for greater security is set to grow after senior government officials said that Jose Padilla (also known as Abdullah al Mujahir), a terrorist suspect whose detention was announced on 10 June, had apparently intended to build a 'dirty bomb'. “This man thought he could get the materials from places like university labs,” said Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, in a television interview.

New calls for tighter control of radioactive materials are now expected — hot on the heels of a law that demands tighter strictures on biological agents that could be used by terrorists. University administrators are currently analysing the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Act, which became law on 12 June, to assess its impact on their institutions.

“There's going to be a flurry of proposals for legislation to secure materials,” predicts Michael Levi, head of strategic security at the Federation of American Scientists. “I will be surprised if there aren't much stricter standards for universities,” he says. Howard Garrison, a spokesman for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, agrees that regulations may well be tightened for labs using radioactive materials.

Experts say that most laboratory radioactive material, including the liquids used in various biological and medical tests, emits only microcuries of radiation, and would be ineffective as an exploded contaminant. But many labs also house medium-level radioactive sources, emitting up to 10 curies, which could cause low-level contamination over a wide area. Some also keep strong radioactive sources that emit hundreds or even thousands of curies.

Another possible source of highly radioactive material is the irradiator device — a heavily shielded, safe-like container containing cobalt-60 — that is used for research into food irradiation, among other purposes. But safety officers say that the theft of these machines is unlikely, as they are heavy and physically well-secured.

The Health Physics Society, a professional organization of radiation safety officers, held a discussion at its annual meeting this week in Tampa, Florida, on how best to address security problems without hampering research or health care, and has set up a task force to study the issue.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for licensing universities and other institutions to store radioactive materials, but it has signed agreements with 32 of the 50 US states to delegate the task to state governments. “All licensees received a written advisory after 11 September on heightened security,” says John Hickey, chief of materials safety at the commission. “We are evaluating what improvements should be undertaken.”

One issue that alarms Levi is the lack of government support for a project designed to retrieve highly radioactive material — much of it related to defunct nuclear research projects — from places that do not want it but cannot legally dispose of it.

In 1999, the Department of Energy (DOE) set up its Off-Site Source Recovery Project, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, to carry out this task. But even though the project has identified material at more than 5,000 sites, both at universities and elsewhere, the DOE's budget proposal would cut its funding to $2.2 million, from $3 million this year and $7 million last year.

The materials sought by the project are “a very likely source of radioactive material” for terrorists, Levi says. A DOE spokesman says that it will re-evaluate the project's funding in time for its next budget proposal.

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