Among the terrorist threats the federal government is working to minimize
is the threat of radioactive material being used in a radiological dispersal
device, or "dirty bomb." At a March conference of the International
Atomic Energy Agency on this issue, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham
declared, "We are gathered here to deal with...the terrible threat
posed by those who would turn beneficial radioactive sources into deadly
weapons." While Abraham proposed an international initiative to
identify and control high-risk radioactive sources, several Members
of Congress have also introduced bills to address the threat of dirty
bombs in this country. In the Senate, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) introduced
the "Dirty Bomb Prevention Act of 2003" (S. 350) on February
11. A similar companion bill in the House, H.R. 891, was introduced
by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) on February 25. Major provisions of the
bills are summarized below; portions of Abraham's speech will be highlighted
in the next FYI.
Both bills would amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to enhance the
security of certain radioactive materials. Radioactive materials have
numerous beneficial applications, in medicine as well as in other areas.
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) is reviewing
the bills, according to Gerald White, Chair of AAPM's Professional Council.
He indicated that AAPM is "concerned that the use of radioactive
materials in the diagnosis and treatment of disease not be unnecessarily
The Senate bill targets "sensitive radioactive material,"
including any source materials, by-product materials, special nuclear
materials, or other radioactive materials that warrant "improved
security and protection against loss, theft, or sabotage." The
House bill only refers to protection of sealed source material. Neither
bill deals with safeguarding spent or unspent nuclear fuel. Both bills
would establish a Task Force of federal officials (or, in the case of
the House bill, their designees) to assess the security of such materials
against threats of sabotage, theft, or use in a dirty bomb. Membership
of the Task Force varies from bill to bill, but in both cases would
include the Secretaries of Defense, Homeland Security, and Transportation,
and the Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal
Emergency Management Agency.
The Task Force would make recommendations on administrative and legislative
actions, according to the Senate bill, "to provide the maximum
practicable degree of security" against possible threats. (The
House bill encourages the Task Force to consult with federal, state,
and local agencies and the public in this process.) While the details
vary slightly from bill to bill, in general these administrative and
legislative actions may include development or modification of the following:
a classification system for such materials; a national tracking system
and a national system for recovery of material that is lost or stolen;
procedures to improve security during use, transportation and storage;
provisions for storage of material that is not currently in use; methods
to ensure return or proper disposal of such materials (possibly by a
refundable user fee); and modifications of export controls to ensure
foreign recipients will control the materials in a similar manner.
Procedures to improve the security of such radioactive materials during
use may include periodic audits or inspections, increased fines for
security and safety violations, background checks on individuals with
access to such materials, measures to ensure the physical security of
storage facilities, and screening of shipments of radioactive material
to ensure the shipments do not contain explosives.
The House bill also calls for the National Academy of Sciences to study
the industrial, research, and commercial uses for sealed radioactive
sources, and identify "industrial or other processes that utilize
sealed sources that could be replaced with economically and technically
equivalent (or improved) processes that do not require the use of radioactive
Questions have been raised about the additional costs hospitals might
incur in meeting enhanced security requirements, and about how effectively
the bills would restrict terrorists' access to materials that could
be used in a dirty bomb.
The prospect for the bills is not known. Similar bills were introduced,
but not passed, last year. Both of the current bills were introduced
by Democrats, and each has only one Republican cosponsor at this time.
The Senate bill, which is cosponsored by Senators Judd Gregg (R-NH)
and Harry Reid (D-NV), has been referred to the Committee on Environment
and Public Works. The House bill, which now has eight cosponsors, has
been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy
and Air Quality.