The Biden administration on March 2 announced a new strategy to remove and secure certain highly radioactive materials that are used in hospitals and other civilian commercial facilities as a measure to prevent such materials from being acquired by terrorists for making “dirty bombs” or other weapons. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House assistant to the president for Homeland Security, shared the details of the National Security Memorandum to Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Advance Nuclear and Radioactive Material Security (NSM19) later that same day in a discussion at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) global security organization in Washington, D.C., according to a report in the New York Times.
National strategy: Biden’s newly signed NSM 19 “integrates, in a systematic way, U.S. policies to counter the use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons by non-state actors; sets out unified priorities for Departments and Agencies across the Federal government; and affirms the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to work with state, local, tribal, international, and private sector partners on preventing, mitigating, and responding to WMD terrorism threats.”
The New York Times quoted Sherwood-Randall as saying at the NTI event, “President Biden is reaffirming longstanding wisdom that reducing, eliminating, and securing nuclear and radioactive materials continues to be the most effective means to prevent their acquisition and use.”
Also in attendance for the NTI panel were Jill Hruby, undersecretary for nuclear security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration; Bonnie Jenkins, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security; Christopher T. Hanson, chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and Gary Rasicot of the Department of Homeland Security.
NTI chief executive officer Ernest J. Moniz, who moderated the event, noted “that there are more than 1,800 metric tons of materials that we need to control in countries around the world . . . and we have numerous radiological sources that pose threats for dirty bombs.” Sherwood-Randall said that the United States is “evolving our counterterrorism enterprise to ensure that it is well-positioned and nimble enough to meet emerging threats in real time. That means we must maintain our attention and our focus on existential threats that are generally deemed low probability but high consequence.”
Cesium-137: The Department of Energy–led directive is focused on securing radioisotopes, especially cesium-137, that could be used to make dirty bombs, weapons that are designed to explode and release radiological material. Cs-137 is widely used in medical devices for radiation cancer therapy, as well as in such industrial devices as flow detection and measurement gauges. Exposure to Cs-137 can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and increased risk of cancer.
Part of the policy includes encouraging hospitals and industrial facilities to use alternative processes that do not involve Cs-137. As an example of such alternatives, hospitals managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs recently removed Cs-137–based devices used to treat blood with X-rays and replaced them with devices that can produce therapeutic X-rays without that radioisotope.