Nuclear security experts, working for a low profile yet important team, collected thirteen highly radioactive sources from around the U.S. to keep them from being turned into a ‘dirty bomb’ by would-be terrorists. The program is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Off-Site Source Recovery Project (OSRP), and looks to secure hazardous nuclear components and safely store them at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS).
The detonation of a dirty bomb in a terrorist attack is one of the main motivations for the effort , but lost or stolen sources can also lead to human casualties due to mishandling of the items.
The thirteen sources, which are transported under high security, are known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), and have been used as power sources in remote locations as well as in NASA space probes.
RTGs can contain Plutonium sources, which although used in nuclear weapons would not be employed to cause a nuclear chain reaction in the case of a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb does, however, contain the potential to make a large area uninhabitable for many years. Some of the RTGs transported in July had been in use at an Alaska research outpost to power communications and seismometer equipment since the 1970s.
Since 2003, the OSRP has secured over 34,500 radioactive sources both in the U.S. and from other countries, which are then transported to the Nevada site or to other government or industrial waste disposal facilities. The OSRP obtains most of its foreign sources from Mexico, which has had four incidents of missing sources since 2013.
Those who work on the project often cite an infamous incident in Brazil occurred in 1987 to illustrate the importance of the effort. Following the loss of a radioactive source by a medical facility, it was found by individuals unaware of the danger. Four deaths resulted, with many others experiencing radiation sickness and burn injuries.
Radioactive sources are used in many areas of society including food sterilization, medical treatment, and industrial measurement applications. As such, there will always be a need for the oversight of programs like the OSRP, which do important work to keep our country safe yet receive very little attention for their efforts.