Eleven years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Government Accountability Office has released a report saying that hospitals have been negligent in securing the radioactive materials they use to treat cancer patients, potentially putting the materials in the hands of terrorists who could use them to make a dirty bomb.
While authorities have identified no specific plot or target for this 11th anniversary of 9/11, the GAO, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, has warned Congress about lapses in hospitals, many of which routinely use equipment containing these radioactive materials.
"Although we realize how important these facilities and equipment are, they have to be secured," Gene Aloise, director of national resources and environment at the GAO, said.
Nearly four out of five hospitals across the country have failed to put in place safeguards to secure radiological material that could be used in a dirty bomb, according to the report, which identifies more than 1,500 hospitals as having high-risk radiological sources. Only 321 of these medical facilities have set up security upgrades, according to the GAO review, which found some gaping lapses of security in 26 hospitals.
At one facility, for example, a device containing potentially lethal radioactive cesium was stored behind a door with a combination lock -- but the combination was written on the door frame.
At another, a machine containing almost 2,000 curies of cesium-13 was stored just down the hall from a loading dock near an unsecured window.
At a third hospital, at least 500 people had unescorted access to radiological materials.
"In the hands of terrorists, these [radioactive materials] could be used to produce a simple and crude but potentially dangerous weapon," the GAO says.
According to the report, the National Nuclear Security Administration spent $105 million to complete security upgrades at 321 of more than 1,500 hospitals and medical facilities that were identified as having high-risk radiological sources. The upgrades include security cameras, iris scanners, motion detectors and tamper alarms.
But these upgrades are not expected to be completed until 2025, so until then, many hospitals and medical centers remain vulnerable, the GAO says.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission challenged the GAO's findings, saying that the agency and its partners are vigilant about protecting hospitals and medical facilities, and had developed layers of security to do so.
David McIntyre, a representative for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says that all hospitals are covered by legally binding security requirements imposed by NRC. McIntyre points out that these "layers of security" are voluntary measures promoted by Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration over and above the NRC requirements.
The American Hospital Association said it is reviewing the GAO's recommendations.
"Since September 11, hospitals across the country have been upgrading their disaster plans to meet today's new threats. Hospitals follow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's regulations on how to secure radiological materials. In addition, the Joint Commission, which accredits most hospitals, requires hospitals to ensure the safety and security of radioactive materials," the AHA said in a statement.