Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 26, 2014

Old news (about a stolen radiation source), but new analysis

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on February 26, 2014

Last December the funny papers and cable news were all over the story of radioactive material that went missing in Mexico. This website’s own Phil Palin covered the news here.

The material was recovered, and the thieves ended up hospitalized for radiation exposure.

What I’d like to share is analysis of the implications for U.S. domestic radioactive source security.  In other words, it can happen here.

Tom Bielefeld, a physicist who is an associate at the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard, recently broke down the issues involved in this case for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In particular, he notes several cases in “Western democracies” which should raise concern:

  • In July 2011, in the parking lot of a Texas hotel, a thief broke into a truck and stole a radiography camera containing 33.7 curies of iridium-192. The truck drivers had forgotten to switch on the vehicle’s alarm system when they went to dinner. Even though the hotel’s security camera recorded the thief’s car as it left, the device was never found.
  • In February 2013, thieves stole another radiography camera in a small town north of Manchester, England. A courier had left it in his van, which was parked in front of the residence where he stopped for a weekend. The device turned up a month later, at a nearby shopping mall, luckily undamaged.
  • In Canada, the Nuclear Safety Commission lists 17 cases from the past eight years in which radioactive materials were stolen from vehicles, or in which the vehicle itself was stolen with a radiation source in the trunk. Five of these cases involved radiography cameras. All five were eventually recovered.

The news isn’t all bad:

It is true that, in many countries, the situation today is somewhat better than it was 10 years ago. Largely, this is because the US government made the issue a priority after 9/11, when it launched programs for security upgrades in countries where unprotected radiation sources were abundant and presumably within reach of terrorists. US experts have worked in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, helping local partners install security equipment in hospitals and at disposal sites. They have also recovered radiation sources from abandoned facilities and assisted foreign governments in formulating new regulations to improve oversight.

It ain’t all good either:

While US initiatives to strengthen radiological security elsewhere in the world have been at least partially successful, progress at home has been surprisingly difficult. According to a 2008 report by the National Academies, there are more than 5,000 devices containing high-activity radiation sources in the country, including 700 with category-1 sources. So, if terrorists wanted to mount a dirty bomb attack in the United States, they might not have to go abroad to try to steal the material for it.

And there’s this:

Many stakeholders argue that the current regulations provide good-enough protection. In reality, however, there is still little reason for such confidence. In fact, in some US facilities, security conditions remain hair-raising, even when these facilities have been checked by inspectors. This came to light in a 2012 report published by the Government Accountability Office: GAO investigators visited a number of hospitals all over the country to see how the NRC’s new security rules were being implemented, and came back with some sobering findings. For example, one hospital kept a blood irradiator, a category-1 source containing 1,500 curies of cesium-137, in a room with the access code written on the door frame. Another hospital kept a similar device on a wheeled pallet down the hall from a loading dock.

Tom does not leave us without specific recommendations:

Ultimately, good security needs both: strong, strictly enforced regulations and actively participating licensees. Strong regulations are required because investments in security usually don’t generate profits for the businesses. But no security system can work effectively without a vigilant staff that understands the terrorism risk is real. Much like the long-established “safety culture” that has almost certainly prevented many serious radiation accidents, a new “security culture” is needed. This means that businesses, regulators, and government agencies are all aware of security threats, understand their individual responsibilities, and adapt their practices accordingly.


Here are some specific recommendations for the various parties involved in transport security:

  • The NRC must further strengthen its regulations. Given the scale of damage that a “dirty bomb” could cause, it’s difficult to understand why there are still no armed escorts required for category-1 transports. A real-time location-tracking system should be mandatory, not just for vehicles transporting category-1 sources, but also for those with category-2 sources. Similarly, the requirement for drivers to identify “safe havens” for rest stops, before their trip begins, should be extended to category-2 transports.
  • The states could do a lot more, too. Those that do not yet require armed escorts for category-1 transports should implement such a policy soon—and not wait for the NRC to change its rules. And if there is one lesson from the Mexican incident for the states, it’s that all of them should be proactive when it comes to helping licensees identify secure parking areas.
  • The companies themselves play the main role in protecting radioactive sources. They need to be aware that someone might be after their cargo. Drivers, in particular, must be trained to follow security protocols, avoid risky situations, and respond appropriately should they come under attack. Managers should equip their trucks with low-cost security systems—such as GPS tracking systems, duress buttons, or vehicle disabling devices—even when they are not legally required to do so.

If you are concerned about dirty bombs, the entire piece is worth your time:


Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 26, 2014 @ 9:15 am

Thanks Arnold! A useful post and link! Please note that the 84 year old female perp that penetrated ORNL {Oak Ridge National Lab] has been sentenced. I wonder if those who last fed her Thanksgiving will be tried for giving material aid to terrorists?

BTW the woman tried for using a chemical weapon on her paramour wife still has a case pending on appeal.

The open source study of RDD threats I participated in [about 2004] never saw daylight after the final draft was classified by DoE!

One of my high school science projects involved using radioactive isotopes on dogs.

Comment by E. Earhart

February 26, 2014 @ 8:24 pm

DHS Participates in International Exercise to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism:

Mr. Cumming, another nod to DoE!

(Netherlands) @tomic 2014, an international table-top exercise conducted from February 18-20 that focused on international efforts to prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism. As we have seen from seizures of weapon-grade nuclear material in Georgia in 2010 and Moldova in 2011, such materials remain in illegal circulation on the black market, where they are vulnerable to smugglers and potential terrorists. To combat this threat, nations must work together, build capabilities and enhance communications through exercises such as @tomic 2014.

The U.S. delegation to @tomic 2014 was led by the Department of State (DOS) and included representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

DHS, along with DOS, helped design and facilitate @tomic 2014, which involved fictitious but realistic nuclear security scenarios, including smuggling and the threat of terrorism, on a global scale.

Altogether, 31 nations and several international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, International Criminal Police Organization, European Police Office, United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Institute, and the European Commission, participated in this exercise, with additional nations observing. During the course of three days, over 200 international participants had the opportunity to practice working together in an exercise to respond to nuclear threats.

One of the major goals of this Dutch-led exercise was to enhance knowledge and awareness of how nuclear forensics can be used in nuclear smuggling cases. Nuclear forensics helps to determine the possible source of smuggled material, gauge the extent of global smuggling networks, and help refine investigative priorities. As a result, nuclear forensics is playing an increasingly valuable role internationally in nuclear smuggling cases.

@tomic 2014 is one of three events leading up to the Nuclear Security Summit 2014 that will also be hosted by the Netherlands in The Hague on March 24-25 with the expected participation of almost 60 world leaders. The exercise supported key goals of enhancing and sustaining nuclear security for the future, and advancing regional and international cooperation to enable an effective global nuclear security community.

Preventing a nuclear or radiological terrorist attack against the United States is the mission of the nuclear experts, law enforcement, and military personnel who make up the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at DHS and collaborating with our international partners in these types of exercises and events are vital in our efforts to help build global counter nuclear smuggling capabilities.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 27, 2014 @ 2:32 am

Thanks Double E for that info! There was a not insubstantial faction in the federal civil defense cadre that argued each adult American should carry dosimetry. They recognized the expense, that dosimeters need periodic maintenance and calibration. and problems with shelf-life.

The main supply of dosimetry was provided by a government facility in Rolla, N.D. run by G.S.A. and staffed by Native-Americans. Now closed.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 27, 2014 @ 2:37 am

Wiki extract:

Dosimeters measure an individual’s or an object’s exposure to radiated energy. This article concentrates on the radiation dosimeter, which measures exposure to ionizing radiation.

The radiation dosimeter is of fundamental importance in the disciplines of radiation dosimetry and health physics. The ICRP states that if a personal dosimeter is worn on a position on the body representative of its exposure, assuming whole-body exposure, the value of ambient dose equivalent H(10) is sufficient to provide an effective dose value suitable for radiological protection.

Other types of dosimeters are sound dosimeters, ultraviolet dosimeters and electromagnetic field dosimeters.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 27, 2014 @ 3:05 am

Extract from wiki:

Health physics or The Physics of Radiation Protection is the science concerned with the recognition, evaluation, and control of health hazards to permit the safe use and application of ionizing radiation. Health physics professionals promote excellence in the science and practice of radiation protection and safety. Health physicists principally work at facilities where radionuclides or ionizing radiation are used or produced; such as medical institutions, government laboratories, academic and research institutions, nuclear power plants, regulatory agencies and manufacturing plants.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 27, 2014 @ 8:20 am

Double E! A larger % of DoE’s classified budget is devoted to HLS than any other component including DHS!

Perhaps you could dig out say the top 20 departments and agencies ranked by unclassified budgets?

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 27, 2014 @ 8:27 am

Extract from Wiki:

The United States Department of Energy national laboratories and technology centers are a system of facilities and laboratories overseen by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) for the purpose of advancing science and technology to fulfill the DOE mission. Sixteen of the seventeen DOE national laboratories are federally funded research and development centers administered, managed, operated and staffed by private-sector organizations under management and operatings (M&O) contract with DOE.


1 History
2 List of DOE National Laboratories and Technology Centers
2.1 National Laboratories
2.2 Technology Centers
3 List of scientific user facilities
4 Further reading
5 External links

Comment by Ed Baldini

February 28, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

We are trying domestically to try to reduce this threat as much as we can. Article has map of where high risk civilian sources are located:


USG will award 3rd Securing the Cities Grant later this year. Eight regions in the competetion to follow NYC and Los Angeles Regions.

Most of country, most of Law Enforcement agencies not currently engaged but a group of committed folks are pushing the envelope where ever they can. Awareness of the threat and material are the first step and common sense source security the second.

Remote threat but a potential game changer. Most of these high risk sources have medical applications and the alternatives are expensive.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 3, 2014 @ 5:30 am

Thanks Ed for the link!

Comment by Roma

January 13, 2017 @ 3:12 am

It’s really a nice and useful piece of info. I’m glad that you shared
this useful info with us. Please keep us informed like this.

Thank you for sharing.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>