ACRAMENTO — There are plenty of ingredients easily accessible in California to assemble a “dirty bomb,” or explosives laced with radioactive material, according to a newspaper’s investigation.
The Sacramento Bee reported Sunday that radioactive materials are scattered across the state at thousands of sites, and hundreds of them hold enough for a “dirty bomb,” according to state and federal records.
Machines that operate using large amounts of radioactivity have become commonplace in medicine, research and construction. Radioactive material can be found in the lunchbox-sized construction tool used to peer inside pipelines and walls; in the giant irradiators used to purify foods and sterilize medical supplies; in the medical equipment used to cut brain tumors and treat blood.
In some places, such equipment is left unattended for hours or days behind locked doors, the Bee reported.
With the exception of nuclear plants and weapons sites, the nation’s system of radiological safeguards is aimed at preventing accidents, not thwarting well-planned thefts.
“Safety is different from security. We need to do a much better job of controlling the radioactive materials we have out there,” said Steven E. Koonin, a nuclear physicist and provost at the California Institute of Technology who has advised the government on security issues.
A “dirty bomb,” known formally as a radiation dispersal device, probably would kill no more people than a conventional blast. It would cause far fewer deaths than a chemical or biological attack, experts say.
But some predict the dirty bomb is one of the likeliest weapons to be unleashed by terrorists because the ingredients are so easy to get and the potential damage in panic and cleanup costs are so huge.
“I would be surprised if we didn’t see one within a decade,” Koonin said.
Although medical and industrial uses of radiation are widely documented, The Bee chose not to identify the owners of significant quantities in light of concerns about how simple it might be to gather enough radioactivity to create a “dirty bomb.”
People have to take safety courses before getting a license to own even small amounts of radioactive materials, but they do not need to undergo criminal or background checks. A federal law to require background checks for hazardous materials haulers is at least two months away from being implemented.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently reduced the frequency of inspections for most radioactive materials license holders and does not fully check large inventories to ensure their owners know what is on hand.