Expert Calls for U.S. Steps to Avert Dirty-Bomb-Material Road Theft

A Dec. 4 view of the area in Tepojaco, Hidalgo state, in Mexico where the Volkswagen Worker truck transporting a 'teletherapy source' containing cobalt-60 was stolen by gunmen two days earlier. Vehicles in the United States carrying similarly dangerous radiological sources are at risk of being hijacked if more regulations are not put in place, a security expert said on Thursday.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Jan. 24, 2014, 9:55 a.m.

A nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity ex­pert is call­ing on the U.S. gov­ern­ment to bet­ter reg­u­late the private-sec­tor trans­port of ra­di­olo­gic­al sources that could be seized by ter­ror­ists.

“Giv­en the scale of dam­age that a ‘dirty-bomb’ could cause, it’s dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why there are still no armed es­corts re­quired for cat­egory 1 trans­ports,” said Tom Biele­feld, a phys­i­cist and se­cur­ity-policy ex­pert at the Har­vard Uni­versity Belfer Cen­ter’s Pro­ject on Man­aging the Atom.

Cat­egory 1 sources are the most deadly of five ra­di­olo­gic­al cat­egor­ies ranked by the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency. In­di­vidu­als who come in­to close con­tact to un­shiel­ded cat­egory 1 sources can die of ra­di­ation con­tam­in­a­tion with­in a few minutes to an hour, Biele­feld wrote in a Thursday ana­lys­is for the Bul­let­in of the Atom­ic Sci­ent­ists.

The 3,000 cur­ies of co­balt-60 con­tained in a briefly stolen truck last month in Mex­ico by armed thieves — who turned out to be more in­ter­ested in the truck than the cargo — was a cat­egory 1 source.

While not quite as dan­ger­ous as cat­egory 1 sources, cat­egory 2 ma­ter­i­als can cause ir­re­vers­ible in­jur­ies or even death if in­di­vidu­als are ex­posed to them for long enough.

Though the ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­al in the Mex­ico case even­tu­ally was loc­ated and re­trieved, there is a chance that sim­il­ar or more dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents could take place in the United States, said Biele­feld.

He offered a num­ber of sug­ges­tions for lim­it­ing the risk of a ter­ror­ist group seiz­ing cat­egory 1 sources and oth­er lower-grade ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als while they are be­ing trans­por­ted by vehicle across the coun­try, in­clud­ing:

— A re­quire­ment by the U.S. Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion that a “real-time loc­a­tion-track­ing sys­tem” be in­stalled in all vehicles trans­port­ing either cat­egory 1 or cat­egory 2 sources;

— A man­date in all 50 U.S. states that trucks trans­port­ing cat­egory 1 sources have an armed es­cort;

— As­sist­ance by states to ra­dio­act­ive trans­port li­censees in identi­fy­ing se­cure park­ing areas where drivers can safely rest;

— Bet­ter train­ing of truck drivers in how to re­spond, should their vehicles come un­der at­tack; and

— Out­fit­ting trucks with in­ex­pens­ive se­cur­ity devices, such as vehicle-dis­abling sys­tems and duress but­tons.

“On the road, there are few­er tech­nic­al pro­tec­tion meas­ures avail­able than in­side build­ings, so se­cur­ity de­pends even more on the people in charge: the drivers,” Biele­feld said. “They must be vi­gil­ant and pre­pared. This is primar­ily the re­spons­ib­il­ity of their bosses, who, in turn, must be able to rely on ad­equate rules and spe­cif­ic guid­ance from the reg­u­lat­or.”

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