Issue Advocates Want Hague Summit to Phase Out Some Radiological Materials

Human blood awaiting transfusion. Nonproliferation advocates are urging world leaders at next week's Nuclear Security Summit to take steps towards replacing radiological materials used to irradiate blood prior to transfusion with technologies that could not be used to make a "dirty bomb."
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
March 21, 2014, 9:33 a.m.

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.

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