Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 14, 2014

Radiation Roundup: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on May 14, 2014

THE GOOD

Members of the U.S. Senate are moving bills that aim to increase security at our nation’s nuclear power plants.

One of the bills, introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would ultimately force nuclear power plant operators to accelerate the transfer of nuclear waste stored in spent fuel pools into dry cask storage units.

Activists have long argued that spent fuel pools at many plants are filled beyond their originally intended capacity and could cause a catastrophic radioactive fire in the event of an accident or terrorist attack. Dry cask storage units, which some reactors are already using in a limited capacity, would be safer and more secure, watchdog groups have said.

In addition:

Another provision in Tuesday’s legislation would expand — from 10 miles to 50 miles — the size of the emergency planning zone around reactors that do not comply with the accelerated waste transfer plan.

Although NRC officials urged U.S. citizens within 50 miles of Japan’s Fukushima plant to evacuate during the onset of the disaster there in 2011, the commission only requires U.S. plants to have emergency response plans that cover a 10-mile area.

Finally:

A separate bill introduced by the same three senators on Tuesday would stop the commission from issuing exemptions to its emergency response and security requirements for those reactors that have permanently shut down.

Moving spent fuel to cask storage really should be a no-brainer, particularly following Fukushima.

What will be interesting to watch unfold is the conversation around expanding the area covered by emergency response plans around nuclear power plants.  To my knowledge the 50-mile decision has never been fully explained in light of domestic regulations capping it at 10 miles.  Expanding it seems simple, but all of a sudden metro areas like New York City and Boston will be within the special planning zones.  How does one plan to evacuate New York City following a nuclear accident?

THE BAD

Some in the medical industry are resisting efforts to replace equipment that contains highly radioactive isotopes that could potentially be used in a dirty bomb with safer designs.  Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe has the story:

But now federal officials worry the material that makes these devices dubbed blood irradiator machines so effective — a highly radioactive powder known as cesium chloride — could threaten public safety. Some fear that people could be exposed in an accident or, in a worst-case scenario, that the material could be stolen by terrorists to make a “dirty bomb” spewing radiation.

That has set the stage for an unlikely fight between the government and some in the medical industry who are reluctant to give up the relatively low-cost machines and replace them with more expensive devices that are safer but might break down more frequently.

The potential benefit?

“If we could make headway on this — if you could get all the cesium chloride off the market — it would be permanent risk reduction,” said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit dedicated to finding solutions to international security problems.

So what’s the holdup?

But some health providers and suppliers, which have a history of resisting such a change, say they are not convinced it is feasible to invest in newer X-ray irradiators, which costs up to $2 million, not including maintenance costs. They also said the technology is less reliable than the current machines, which can last up to 30 years, require little upkeep, and can handle larger quantities.

And:

Others contend that some of the resistance stems from the radioisotopes industry, for which cesium irradiation machines have been a lucrative slice of the market.

‘There are going to be winners and losers,” said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an expert on radiological materials. “The people who only make cesium chloride aren’t going to like it.”

Why is this a pressing issue?

Cesium chloride is considered among the most pressing challenges in preventing the use of a dirty bomb. It has similar properties as sodium chloride, or table salt, such as being dissolvable in water. Such properties, along with its high radioactivity, make it better suited to a terrorist weapon than other medical radiological materials, such as cobalt-60, which comes in the form of a small pellet or wire.

As early as 2008, the National Research Council, a private nonprofit that advises the government on policy, recommended getting rid of the material, saying that “cesium chloride is a greater concern than other radiation sources based on its dispersibility and its presence in population centers across the country.”

Safety regulations almost always face push-back from entrenched interests.  It seems our economy should be a shell of its current self due to decades old efforts to clean up our air and water. But as the Boston Globe article points out, the U.S. lags behind other industrial countries in replacing these machines and I can’t imagine they have greater concerns regarding the potential dangers of dirty bombs.

The article has a number of other interesting nuggets and is worth a read.

THE UGLY

In terms of U.S. nuclear terrorism security, Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee seem determined to cut off the nose to spite the face:

The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee last week approved legislative language that would prevent the U.S. Energy Department from using fiscal 2015 funds “for any contract, cooperation, or transfer of technology” between the United States and Russia until the crisis has been resolved. The panel included the language in its version of the annual defense authorization bill, which it passed last week.

“We acknowledge and are gravely concerned with the crisis in Ukraine — there’s no question about it,” Gottemoeller said in response to a question from Global Security Newswire. “But we shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot in terms of stopping or halting important national security work that prevents nuclear bombs from getting in the hands of terrorists because we have other grave concerns.

What does this work include?

Also included is the Energy Department collaboration with Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency, which she said had so far been responsible for the removal of 3,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from third-party countries. The collaboration also involves upgrading the physical security of buildings in Russia where sensitive nuclear material is stored, DOE officials have said previously.

If you rank the national security interests of the United States, preventing terrorists from exploding a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil should come in higher than concerns about Russian actions in the Ukraine.  Right?  Suspending activities that directly impact our security simply because it includes the word “Russia” is nonsensical. I bet it’s just as hard to find Russian dressing as French fries in the Congressional cafeteria these days…

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2 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 21, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

Arnold! Just so you know I think this is a terrific post. Will explain in detail later.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 25, 2014 @ 3:02 am

Nuclear surety and safeguards a quagmire. Now more stories appearing that VP Cheney inserted himself into nuclear weapons chain of command.

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