- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The threat of a dirty bomb has not diminished since September 11. In fact, the threat is likely to grow until a few basic security flaws that have been recently exposed are corrected. Dirty bombs, also known as radiation dispersal devices (RDD), contain conventional explosives seeded with radioactive materials. While the initial explosion of an RDD may cause some destruction, most of the damage is done through the dispersal of radioactive material. That material may not be concentrated enough to kill, but it could still extract an enormous toll in social disruption and cleanup costs.

Radioactive materials are used in everything from sterilizing food to treating cancer, and so potential sources for dirty bombs are ubiquitous. As a report released in September by Los Alamos National Laboratory noted, “The commerce in radiological source material is global, with suppliers on six continents and users in nearly every country.”

In the United States, the security problem seems most acute with sealed radioactive sources, which consist of radioactive materials encapsulated in non-radioactive metals. It is estimated that there are 2 million sealed sources in use in the United States, but no one really knows. According to a report in August by the General Accounting Office, neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) nor individual states track specific sources. Instead, they track licenses. The NRC assumes license applicants are acting in good faith, and so it can be a year between when the license is issued (which allows the licensee to obtain sealed sources) and when inspections are done.

Even worse, there is no centralized database for the licenses, since the NRC and the states use separate tracking systems. As a consequence, there have been some discrepancies. Since 1998, there were more than 1,300 incidents of missing materials. Most, but not all of them, were later recovered, according to the GAO report. The NRC has downplayed concerns about the missing remainder, but there is no denying that the license system needs reworking.

The transportation security of sealed radioactive sources may also need some upgrading, although the transportation of spent reactor fuel rods does not appear to pose a great hazard. A GAO report on the subject released in July concluded that there is “a low likelihood of widespread harm to human health from terrorist attacks … involving spent fuel.”

Al Qaeda has been anxious to acquire materials that could be used in dirty bombs. Last month, Bill Gertz of The Washington Times reported that al Qaeda operative Adnan El Shukrijumah was spotted in Hamilton, Ontario, about a year ago, attempting to procure radioactive materials.

The danger of dirty bombs can be reduced, even if it cannot be completely extinguished. The NRC and the states should take a serious look at setting up a centralized tracking system for sealed radioactive sources. Other reforms may also be required, and Congress must keep a watchful eye on the matter.

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