Key Issues > Security of Radioactive Materials
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Security of Radioactive Materials

Radioactive materials can cause significant harm if they fall into the wrong hands. Federal agencies could better ensure the security of these materials.

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Radioactive materials are used throughout the United States for medical, industrial, and research purposes. For instance, these materials help treat cancer, sterilize food and medical instruments, and detect flaws in metal welds.

However, in the hands of terrorists, some radioactive materials could be used to construct a radiological dispersal device (i.e., a “dirty bomb”), which uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. This type of bomb could expose nearby individuals to radiation and increase their long-term risks of cancer. Evacuation and cleanup of contaminated areas could lead to serious socioeconomic costs, as individuals with homes and businesses in those areas may not be able to return for an extended period because of actual or feared contamination.

A Radiological Dispersal Device

A Radiological Dispersal Device

The image above is a fictional urban landscape and is not intended to represent any specific city or urban area.

Several federal agencies play key roles in assuring that radioactive materials stay out of the hands of terrorists. For instance, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have all taken steps to improve the security of some sources of radioactive materials at medical, industrial, and research facilities. Additionally, NNSA has partnered with 59 countries to provide radiation detection equipment and support to help prevent nuclear and radiological smuggling into the United States.

However, some of these agencies could improve their efforts to secure radioactive materials—including by addressing priority recommendations to the NRC and the DHS.

For example:

  • NRC is responsible for setting requirements for licensing the use of these materials to medical facilities. These licensing requirements include security provisions to prevent materials from being stolen. To help address security vulnerabilities at medical facilities, NRC should provide hospitals and medical facilities with specific measures they must take to develop and sustain a more effective security program, including specific directions on the use of cameras and alarms.
  • NRC considers the health risks from short-term radiation exposure when determining how to safeguard radioactive material, but factors such as deaths during an evacuation and the cost of environmental cleanup should also be considered. Additionally, key NRC security requirements only apply to large quantities of radioactive material, even though both large and small amounts of material could produce many billions of dollars of socioeconomic damage.
  • NRC has worked to ensure that licenses for radioactive materials are granted only to legitimate organizations, and that licensees can only obtain such materials in quantities allowed by their licenses. However, our reports in both 2007 and 2016 showed that NRC’s controls for licensing radioactive material lack rigor. GAO’s staff set up fake businesses and were able to obtain genuine licenses to purchase dangerous quantities of radioactive material.
  • Tens of thousands of shipments containing radioactive materials enter the United States each year. To help prevent terrorists from smuggling this material into the United States, DHS’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is planning to upgrade its radiation portal monitors, which scan cargo and vehicles for radiation at U.S. ports of entry. CBP is also responsible for verifying that shipments entering the country are authorized or licensed. However, CBP failed to verify licenses for some shipments, and its processes do not ensure that all shipments are identified.

A CBP Radiation Detection Portal Monitor

A CBP Radiation Detection Portal Monitor

Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.
  • portrait of Allison Bawden
    • Allison Bawden
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • (202) 512-3841