Legislation Addresses Security of Radioactive Materials

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Publication date: 
23 May 2003

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 impeded."

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 materials."

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.

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