Paper - Institute for Nuclear Materials Management

The Security of Medical and Industrial Radioactive Sources

| July 17, 2008

Institute for Nuclear Materials Management 49th Annual Meeting, Nashville, Tennessee, 13–17 July 2008


Recent foiled and successful terrorist plots in Europe and the US (including two cases in the UK and Germany which included plans to design radiological dispersal devices in 2004 and 2005), clearly demonstrate that domestic or locally acting terrorist cells have become an important part of the terrorist threat picture. The uncovered “dirty bomb” – plots involved radioactive material of type or quantity that would not have caused much damage. Still, these observations underscore the necessity to revisit the issue of radioactive sources security in countries which may become the target of a radiological attack. This includes in particular countries in Europe, many of which in the past relied on sophisticated — but safety centred — regulations and functioning oversight institutions. In a pilot study, we have developed plausible attack scenarios involving medical and industrial sources used in Germany. Special emphasis was put on how such sources could be obtained by a locally acting terrorist group using criminal tactics and non-specialized equipment only. To this end, sources storage and handling as well as daily work procedures in hospitals and companies have been analysed to find weak points which could be discovered and exploited by terrorist groups. Publicly available technical information has been used to assess under which circumstances terrorists could obtain various types of sources or whole instruments. Calculations have been performed to estimate the radiation burden to a person handling these sources with improvised equipment. Our study shows that, even in a country with already high regulatory standards, hospitals and industrial facilities still need to introduce improvements to sources security. We therefore discuss and propose a number of affordable security upgrades. Many of our findings in Germany apply to other western countries as well. Hence, we call for a change of mentality of users and manufacturers to take into account not only the safety but also, and more thoroughly, the security aspects of the use of radioactive materials. In today’s world, sources are not only dangerous to handle, they are also themselves in danger of being used by terrorists. The once-popular notion of “self-protecting” radioactive sources no longer holds.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bielefeld, Tom and Helmut W. Fischer. “The Security of Medical and Industrial Radioactive Sources.” Paper, Institute for Nuclear Materials Management, July 17, 2008. (presented at Institute for Nuclear Materials Management 49th Annual Meeting, Nashville, Tennessee).

The Authors