GAO finds lax medical facilities radioactive material security

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An ongoing review of medical facility security surrounding radioactive materials by the Government Accountability Office has turned up examples of vulnerabilities.

In prepared testimony (.pdf) presented March 14 to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia, the GAO notes that there exists no specific national standard for facility radiological source controls.

Rather, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission--which is responsible for regulating the security of radiological sources in U.S. medical facilities--issued in 2005 a broadly-written order directing facilities to increase security. NRC officials say the order is a general framework and it's up to the facilities to determine specific measures, such as whether security cameras are necessary or what types of locks or alarms to use.

When GAO auditors visited 25 hospitals and medical facilities in different parts of the nation that implemented the NRC order, they found a number of security weaknesses. For example, one hospital that passed its most recent NRC security inspection indeed placed a camera in the hallway leading to a room containing two cesium-137 irradiators of 2,000 and 6,000 curies, respectively. But, the camera is pointed away from the room.

At another hospital "in a major U.S. city," auditors found that the interior door to a blood bank with a cesium-137 blood irradiator of 1,500 curies has the combination to the lock written on the door frame. The hospital security administrator told auditors "that he often walks around erasing door combinations that are written next to the locks."

A radiation safety officer at a university hospital couldn't tell auditors exactly how many people had the right to unescorted access to the hospital's radiological sources, other than it was at least 500 people. The database the hospital uses doesn't allow for entering records of individuals beyond 500, he explained. In the past, he added  the number had been as many as 800. By contrast, a major medical research facility at a military installation visited by GAO auditors permits access to four individuals.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has a voluntary program that funds medical facility upgrades, but participation is conditioned on a promise that the facility will continue to fund the upgrades after a period of 3 to 5 years. Of the 25 hospitals the GAO has so far visited, 16 have participated in the program. However, some declined, in part because of the commitment required.

According to NNSA, there are about 1,500 medical facilities in the United States that contain high risk radiological sources, for a total of about 22 million curies of radioactive material.

For more:
- download GAO's preliminary finds, GAO-12-512T (.pdf)
- go to the hearing webpage (additional prepared testimonies and webcast available)

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