December 11, 2004
Imagine the panic if someone spread radioactive material around downtown Toronto.
It would be an ideal tactic for terrorists aiming to paralyze the city.
And it’s a remote but real possibility, radiation safety experts say.
The threat exists because the materials are used in thousands of workplaces throughout Ontario, many of them surprising.
Despite strict regulations on how nuclear materials are handled – measures strengthened since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – many aren’t kept secure, says Fergal Nolan, head of the Toronto-based Radiation safety Institute, which promotes education and training in the issue.
Repeated warnings have been issued about poorly secured stockpiles of nuclear materials, especially in the former Soviet Union, that could be used to make atomic weapons or, more likely, “dirty bombs” – conventional explosives that could scatter radioactive substances over a wide area.
The main concern here, however, is that dangerous stuff could simply be placed on subway seats, in malls or other places where large numbers of people might be exposed.
Warnings predate the 9/11 attacks. “It should be noted that there is an abundance of radioactive isotopes (sources) in the industrial, medical and educational communities that have little or no security surrounding them,” states a discussion paper published by the federal solicitor-general’s department in April 2001.
“The use of radioactive contamination to cause mass casualties is … more difficult to achieve than commonly believed, requiring large quantities of material . . . Nevertheless, given the widespread public anxiety about nuclear material in any form, the mere threat of such use of radioactive materials could be a potent terrorist tool.”
Nolan agrees. In most cases, he says, the dose contained in workplace sources isn’t powerful enough to actually harm people. But fear of the material could lead to devastating psychological and economic disruption.
“While there is no reason to panic, there is equally no good reason to be complacent. Much has been left unattended in workplace radiation safety and security,” Nolan says, “to the potential detriment of our collective security as a nation.”
While it would be hard to obtain large amounts, “you could drop a little here and there.”
The best-known radiation sources are in hospitals, where radiation is used to treat cancers and other diseases, and university research labs.
But they’re also widespread in construction, steel mills, mining and many manufacturing plants, where they perform tasks such as measuring the density of concrete or the thickness of materials, or ensuring that wine and pop bottles are filled accurately, or that a precise amount of tobacco goes into each cigarette.
Regulations enforced by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission require that all sources be kept under lock and key, accessible only to trained and authorized users. Licences can be pulled simply for improper paperwork, even if all the material is accounted for.
“It’s not as simple as someone could walk in off the street and grab something,” says Greg Evans, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Toronto and an expert on radioactivity in the environment.
“If it was that easy, it would have been done,” says commission spokesperson James Leveque.
The U of T, which has radioactive materials at about 700 locations, strictly follows commission rules, says Ray Ilson, manager of the university’s radiation protection services. Radioactive sources are frequently stored in refrigerators or freezers, removed only for use, and then returned. Storage equipment is locked or within a locked facility. Higher-level radioactive materials have additional precautions.
Users must renew their authorization every three years and undergo security checks.
The university’s radioactive waste storage features restricted access, reinforced and locked doors, motion detectors and access alarms.
The university and commission regularly inspect and audit the entire system. Officials say it would take sophisticated and very determined thieves to nab radioactive materials.
On the other hand, an employee with a terrorist bent or an axe to grind could, in theory, carry out a bottle of low-level isotopes.
“A person with criminal intentions, authorized and trained, would be difficult to detect,” Ilson says.
“Since the inventory records for each package are continuously updated, any missing material should be noted quickly.”
Even so, by then it might be too late.
To date, though, there’s no evidence of any thefts. In fact, reports of any missing radioactive materials are rare, and almost always involve careless handling of low-level sources, usually sealed inside measuring gauges for construction and heavy industry, Leveque says.
In recent years, a couple of gauges have bounced off trucks on rough roads. One was eventually spotted deep in a prairie ditch; the other hasn’t been recovered. Another, stolen from a truck, was found within a few hours. A source being used in test drilling at a mine site got stuck in the drill hole and had to remain there.
The stories are similar in the United States, where, Nolan says, on average one source goes missing every day. In the most recent reported case, late last month, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a gauge was stolen from a Virginia company: An employee had left it in his truck while he shopped at a Wal-Mart en route to a job site.
Anyone breaking into this type of gauge would receive an unacceptable but not life-threatening exposure to radiation, says Scott Burnell, a spokesperson for the commission, which licences and regulates U.S. users.
“It’s very unusual to have reports of significant amounts of material go missing.”
But what these officials describe as evidence that the materials are well controlled, critics interpret as symptoms of a serious problem.
“We’ve seen where materials have been forgotten for years,” Nolan says. “Nobody has paid any attention.”
“When things turn up missing, I think that’s one of the better indications of how much care there is,” says Norm Rubin of Toronto-based Energy Probe, which opposes nuclear power. “I don’t accept the argument that it’s easy to drop one of these things down a well, but it’s hard to steal them.
“If someone wanted to do malice . . . the stuff is there.”
Anything containing a radiation source should no longer be treated as a conventional tool, he says. “It’s another area that’s a clear trade-off between security and convenience.”
Rubin is skeptical about the Canadian commission’s reassurances.
“I’ve been told reassuring things by people whose previous reassurances have turned out not to be true.”
The situation is far worse in developing countries, many of which use radioactive materials but have no security expertise, Nolan says.
He acknowledges that the Canadian and other regulators have strengthened their rules since 9/11. “Whether such actions are sufficient remains to be seen.”