Hospital security gaps place radioactive materials at risk

The Government Accountability Office is asking federal regulators for stronger standards requiring health facilities to tighten security over the storage of radioactive medical isotopes after inspections at 26 hospitals uncovered instances where such material was vulnerable to tampering and theft.

A GAO report released Sept. 10 found inconsistencies in the amount of attention individual hospitals and outpatient services give to securing their isotope supplies. The investigation focused on radioactive source material used in cancer radiation and blood therapies. They include mericium-241, cesium-137, cobalt-60, iridium-192, and strontium-90.

Hospitals and health facilities were inspected from April 2011 to September 2012 in California, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

"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," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, said according to the Washington Post. "We must strengthen domestic radiological security requirements and accelerate efforts to secure all medical facilities with radiological materials."

Examples of poor security identified by GAO inspectors included an irradiator--used for medical research and containing nearly 2,000 curies of cesium-137--stored on a wheeled pallet near a loading dock. At another facility, the combination to a lock on a door for a storage area containing 1,500 curies of cesium-137 was clearly written on the door frame.

At a third facility, at least 500 people had unescorted access to the facility's radiological sources.

The report also identified problems with a voluntary health facility security program established in 2008 by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The NNSA has spent about $110 million on security upgrades, but such improvements have been made at only 321 of the 1,503 U.S. hospitals and medical clinical that use high-risk radioisotopes.

Thirteen of 26 hospitals inspected by GAO for its report had volunteered for NNSA security upgrades, and had received equipment such a remote monitoring systems, surveillance cameras, enhanced security doors, iris scanners, motion detectors, and tamper alarms.

NNSA does not expect to upgrade all vulnerable facilities until 2025, however, and GAO identified 14 facilities in four large cities that declined to participate in the voluntary program. In combination, they house more than 41,000 curies of high risk nuclear material, according to the report.

Based on such findings, the GAO recommended stronger NRC security standards defining specific steps medical facilities must take to develop and maintain more effective nuclear materials' security. The report found NRC requirements do not consistently ensure the security of high-risk radiological sources.

"One reason for this is that the requirements are broadly written and do not prescribe specific measure that hospitals and medical facilities must take to security medical equipment containing sealed sources, such as the use of cameras or alarms," the GAO investigators wrote.

To learn more:
- here's the GAO report
- check out the Washington Post article