Nonproliferation advocates are urging U.S. and British officials to help limit the prospect of "dirty bomb" attacks by pushing at next week's Nuclear Security Summit for a global phase-out of certain radiological materials used in the medical field.
In a report released last week, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies argues that for starters, hospitals and blood banks could gradually move away from the use of the cesium chloride. The radioactive substance presently is used for irradiating blood prior to transfusion, in order to prevent a rare but lethal complication known as graft-versus-host disease.
The authors note that the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency has labeled cesium chloride a "Category 1 'extremely dangerous'" radiological source, and say it is "particularly suitable for terrorist purposes" because it is "easily dispersible, water soluble and relatively easy to handle."
With a dirty bomb, terrorists potentially could pair the radioactive material with conventional explosives to disperse it over a large area, creating dangerous contamination.
It is possible to irradiate blood without the use of radioactive isotopes, the report says. Electromagnetic radiation, such as X-rays or ultraviolet light, could be used, as could linear accelerators that many hospitals already have on hand for cancer treatments.
"Indeed, many European governments are already increasing their reliance on these alternative technologies and Japan has been relying on X-ray irradiators as the primary blood treatment since 2000," making the United States "the largest market for cesium chloride based irradiators," the report says.
The document urges the United States and the United Kingdom to lead an effort at the March 24-25 Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands to get other participating countries to sign onto a multilateral statement aimed at weaning the world off of specific high-risk radiological sources.
"The states should announce the launch of an international coalition to research the feasibility of alternative non-isotopic technologies," the report says. This should enable the nations to present a "roadmap" to conversion at the next, and possibly final, Nuclear Security Summit in 2016, it states.
The paper suggests that the international coalition make ending the civil use of cesium chloride a priority, but that it should also examine possibly phasing out other high-risk sources, such as cobalt-60 and cesium-137, which are also used in the medical field.
"Caution should be exercised in extending new licenses for high-risk sources and governments should consider ending the issuance of new licenses, particularly for cesium chloride," the report recommends. "At the very least, this should be declared a policy goal. Any new licenses should require a written justification on the part of the licensee as to why they are not using non-isotopic technology."
In addition, licensees should "be required to provide financial assurance to cover the costs of disposal" for the radiological materials that they use, the report urges, particularly because the availability of disposal facilities equipped to handle such wastes is limited. Currently, the cost of disposal "is often borne by the government, not the user."
Licensees should also be required to carry insurance that would award "massive damages in the event of a terrorist attack," the report suggests. Presently, most medical facilities have insurance plans that exclude terrorism events, it says.
The request comes as the United States is expected to lead an effort at next week's summit under which participating countries would agree to adopt into domestic law the U.N. nuclear agency's code of conduct for radiological sources.
Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor and former aide to President Clinton, told Global Security Newswire that language encouraging a shift toward alternative technologies could be included in such a multilateral "gift basket." This is a term being used for the statements in which several countries agree to offer the same nuclear-security commitment.
Bunn said, however, that such language would likely not be included in the summit communique, the official document that all 53 participating nations will sign.
So far, government reaction to suggestions that alternative technologies be promoted has been mixed, according to the CNS report. For example, a U.S. interagency Task Force on Radiation Protection and Security "only partially embraced" such recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences from 2008.
In a 2010 report to the president and Congress, the task force said that while "alternatives exist for some applications, the viability, relative risk reduction achievable, and the state of development of these alternatives vary greatly."
The Nuclear Security Summit process -- launched in 2010 by President Obama -- has made some strides on another proliferation concern related to the use of certain radiological isotopes in the medical field. At the 2012 installment in South Korea of the biennial summits, the United States, France, Belgium and the Netherlands agreed to collaborate toward producing molybdenum-99 without the use of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium by 2015.
However, some delays are expected in the implementation of this previous "gift basket." Dutch isotope producer Mallinckrodt, which was expected to convert its reactors to use low enriched uranium by next year, now is not expected to do so until 2017.
More broadly, summit-goers next week are expected to take some steps toward the creation of universal nuclear-security standards. The United States, the Netherlands and South Korea are leading an effort to get participating nations to sign a pledge that they will adopt -- and be bound by -- U.N. nuclear agency guidelines for the physical protection of nuclear materials.
The non-governmental Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group released a report this week asserting it is necessary to make such security practices universal.
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.