WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, held an oversight hearing on “Managing our interagency nuclear nonproliferation efforts: Are we effectively securing nuclear materials around the world?”

At the request of Chairman Akaka, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified about preliminary findings of a study it is conducting to review the security of hospitals and medical facilities in the United States that utilize radiological sources.  These facilities rely on medical devices, which contain significant quantities of radiological sources, in order to conduct research and treat cancer.  GAO’s Director of Natural Resources and Environment, Gene Aloise, reported on the office’s findings at yesterday’s hearing.

“Since September 11, 2001, significant attention and federal resources have been devoted to the security of nuclear and radiological materials,” said Chairman Akaka.  “In addition to the work of my colleagues, I have chaired nine hearings on these important issues.  Yet, the country remains alarmingly vulnerable.  GAO’s report of unsecured radiological materials in hospitals and other facilities nationwide should serve as a wake-up call to these facilities, as well as to federal regulators.  We must strengthen domestic radiological security requirements to prevent unauthorized access to these materials.  And we must accelerate government programs to properly secure all high-risk radiological sites.   

“As President Obama prepares to travel to Seoul, South Korea for the Nuclear Security Summit, I call on the Administration to seek a new international initiative to secure all radiological materials in four years – beginning with the many high-risk hospitals here at home.  When the U.S. leads by example, we can make great strides to improve international safety and security.”   

In prepared testimony, GAO reported that, based on preliminary findings, the National Regulatory Commission (NRC) set vague security controls for hospitals and medical facilities to protect their radiological sources.  These ambiguous standards are being implemented in a variety of ways, which has “created a mix of security controls and procedures that could leave some facilities’ radiological sources more vulnerable than others to possible tampering, sabotage or outright theft.”

In addition, GAO found a number of security weaknesses at the 25 medical facilities they visited, including radiological security personnel who were too often unqualified to interpret and carry out the controls set by the NRC. They also found risky procedures such as storing radiological material on wheeled carts which can be easily removed from secure locations, writing passwords and combinations on doorframes next to locks or security pads, and failing to monitor access to potentially dangerous radiological materials. 

Security personnel told GAO auditors that they had limited security experience and were placed in the awkward situation of having to enforce regulations that they did not believe they were fully qualified to interpret.  Furthermore, none of these officials received training in how to implement the NRC controls.
GAO’s testimony also mentioned that the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has established a voluntary program to upgrade the security of domestic facilities that have radiological sources, which has made marked progress.  Alarmingly, however, some facilities have declined NNSA’s assistance to upgrade security, including hospitals located in high-risk urban areas.

NNSA estimates there are approximately 1,500 hospital and medical buildings in the United States -that they have identified-that contain high-activity radiological sources, totaling about 22 million curies of radioactive material.

GAO plans to continue to audit facilities across the U.S. and issue a full report later this year.

The Subcommittee also received testimony from witnesses from the U.S. Departments of State, Energy, and Defense on nuclear and radiological security.