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Tighter Safeguards Urged for Radiological Materials in US Hospitals

A leading U.S. lawmaker on intelligence issues is warning that the United States is not doing enough to prevent terrorists from stealing radiological materials from its hospitals to make a dirty bomb. The Chairwoman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment, Jane Harman, told a gathering of experts at the New American Foundation here in Washington that it will take $125 million to secure nuclear materials in some 500 hospitals across the country.

Al-Qaida and other extremist groups have  expressed interest in lacing conventional weapons with radioactive materials to create a so-called dirty bomb.

Harman says the United States is not doing enough to safeguard these materials in hospitals and research centers.

"Radiological sources within this country are not adequately secured.  Add to this the increase in the threat of homegrown terror, something my subcommittee has been watching closely, and there is a recipe for disaster," she said.

Harman's comments come in the wake of a U.S. State Department warning to Americans traveling in Europe.  The warning asks travelers to be extra vigilant in watching for suspicious activity, but it did not specify what kinds of threats to look for or what countries in Europe might be most vulnerable to attack.

Harman, who receives regular classified intelligence briefings, says the White House has not done a good job explaining the European scare to Americans, which she described as "a real threat."

Several years ago, Harman toured three of the New York City's major hospitals to inspect the levels of security they use to keep radiological materials safe from theft by terrorists.

"It's not that hard to storm into one of these hospitals, take the source out of the machine and put together a crude bomb and explode it almost immediately, before law enforcement can arrive in adequate numbers," she said.

Harman also asked administrators at the hospitals about what kinds of background checks they did on employees who handle radiological materials.  She said the answers she received led her to believe the detonation of a dirty bomb from a hospital could easily be "an inside job."

She says it is not very expensive to secure the access of radiological materials so that they cannot be stolen for making a dirty bomb. "The U.S. could secure radiological sources at the 500 major metropolitan hospitals in this country. At [the cost of] about $250,000 per building, that will total to $125 million, which probably we spend in an hour in Afghanistan," she said.

Harman says once the November elections are over, she hopes the House and Senate can get back to work and find $125 million for this project.

Earlier this year, President Barrack Obama convened a two-day summit in Washington with nearly 50 heads of state and dignitaries to discuss ways to secure the world's loose nuclear material, such as enriched uranium and plutonium.  But no attention was paid to radiological materials.

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