Federal investigators have documented 1,300 cases of lost, stolen or abandoned radioactive material inside the United States over the past five years and have concluded there is a significant risk that terrorists could cobble enough together for a dirty bomb.Before everyone enters panic mode, note that there is good news buried in the story:
Studies by the Energy Department's Los Alamos laboratory and the General Accounting Office found significant holes in the nation's security net that could take years to close, even after improvements by regulators since Sept. 11, 2001.
"The world of radiological sources developed prior to recent concerns about terrorism, and many of the sources are either unsecured or provided, at best, with an industrial level of security," the Los Alamos lab concluded two months ago in a report that was reviewed by The Associated Press.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman Beth Hayden said the agency recognizes the potential dangers of such materials and al-Qaida's interest in them - "there are millions of sources," she said. But she added most of the 1,300 lost radiological sources were subsequently recovered and the public should keep the threat in perspective.Similarly, the Deseret News (apparently a Utah paper) reported recently about some findings delivered at the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology (ASTRO) meeting. Here are the most important paragraphs:
"The ones that have been lost and not recovered, I'm told, if you put them all together, it would not add up to one highly radioactive source," Hayden said. "These are low-level sources."
Wednesday, radiation oncologists meeting in Salt Lake City debunked what they called "myths" about dirty bomb damage.On the other hand, if you want to be scared, the Washington Times (again!) reported in mid-October that an al Qaeda operative was nosing around McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada looking for materials to build a dirty bomb. Apparently, several al Qaeda operatives have been spotted this past year or so in Hamilton and the US thinks there's a terrorist cell there.
The American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology (ASTRO) members have, since the terrorist attacks, been examining danger radiation exposure might pose. And it's not, they say, what has been generally presented.
Radiation from dirty bombs would not be apt to contaminate and eventually kill people in a large geographic area.
"The conventional explosive itself will probably do more damage than the radiation that's tagged to the bomb," said ASTRO spokeswoman Nancy Daly, who is also a nurse with a master's degree in public health and nursing. "That's not to say there are not people who would be exposed and of concern, but more people will have life-threatening injuries from whatever the device is that explodes."
The real "dirty bomb" materials of great concern, I'm afraid, are in lightly guarded rooms in Russia.