Protecting Ourselves from Dirty Bombs

February 6th, 2009 by wtobey

Why Do We Have a Better System for Disposing of Bottles than for Radioactive Material?

The Problem

Radiological sources have many beneficial uses.  Among other things, they help us to diagnose and treat disease, avoid crop damage without using pesticides, search for oil, and ensure that food supplies are pure.  In the wrong hands, however, they can be used to make weapons that could spread radioactive contamination and wreak economic damage—so called dirty bombs.  Securing and disposing of radiological sources is thus a matter of public safety, and indeed of national security.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for overseeing the security and disposition of radiological sources.  Its mandate is “to enable the nation to safely use radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while ensuring that people and the environment are protected.” 

This mandate contains an internal tension.  To enable the use of such materials is to facilitate it; to ensure their safe use is to restrict it.  The NRC has chosen to resolve this tension in favor of looser restrictions.

According to the Washington Post, undercover Government Accountability Office investigators obtained with little scrutiny from the NRC a license enabling them to buy enough radioactive material from U.S. suppliers to build a “dirty bomb.” 

The sting involved purchase of dozens of small sources, requiring minimal background checks, which could be combined to qualify as a mid-level threat on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale.  The investigators ordered the equipment to be delivered to a Mailboxes Etc. post office box (although delivery was never made), and did it all from their GAO desks.

Perhaps worse, is the U.S. system for disposing of radiological sources.  Every year, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) nonproliferation program collects about 2,250 unused and unwanted radiological sources for safe storage and disposition.  This is a massive effort.  To date, NNSA has collected some 19,000 such sources containing nearly half a million curies (roughly speaking, 1,000 curies could make a dirty bomb).  Unfortunately, more such sources are being created than NNSA can collect.  Dividing the responsibility for regulating and securing such sources has created an ad hoc system, which cannot be safely sustained.

The Solution

The NRC needs to take two actions.  First, it needs to establish the bona fides of all purchasers of radiological sources before issuing a license, including a plausible economic purpose, the means to secure the material, and a safe disposition plan.  Second, the NRC should require a deposit equal to the likely cost of safe disposition, to be refunded once disposition is complete. 

This second step would have two beneficial effects.  Disposition costs would be internalized, ensuring that true economic costs are taken into account during decisions to make or purchase such sources.  This is economically efficient.  Moreover, companies would have strong economic incentives to dispose of unused or unwanted sources (instead of leaving them unattended and vulnerable to theft by terrorists). 

There are other steps we should take to reduce the threat of a threat of a dirty bomb attack, but these would be a good start.   After all, we require a larger deposit on beer bottles than we do to buy radioactive material.




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2 Responses to “Protecting Ourselves from Dirty Bombs”

  1. Tooz Says:

    The right way to take care of radioactive wasted is to reprocess it - but president Carter killed that program. Another demoncrat blunder.

    Reprocessing reduces the waste to 10% of the original volume as well as minimizing uranium mining - it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that would be good for the environment and the country.

  2. William Tobey Says:

    Reprocessing refers to recycling spent reactor fuel, allowing uranium and plutonium to fuel additional reactors. The isotopes cited in the article about dirty bombs cannot be used as reactor fuel, nor can they be recycled. They must be stored.

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