High-activity radioactive sources are commonly used in medical, research, and industrial applications in the United States and worldwide. These sources present a security concern due to their potential use in radiological dispersal devices (dirty bombs) or radiological exposure devices. Although there has not been an event in the United States involving intentional malicious use of a high-activity radioactive source, the U.S. Government is considering steps that can be taken to minimize the security risks associated with radioactive sources. Non-radioisotopic alternatives to high-activity radioactive sources have emerged in recent decades, demonstrating marked improvement in reliability, operability, viability, and availability. In certain cases, non-radioisotopic alternatives offer a means for permanently reducing risk and for reducing cost.
This Administration has been a strong champion of initiatives to minimize nuclear and radioactive materials. In the U.S. National Progress Report to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, the United States highlighted “minimizing nuclear and other radioactive materials” as a key focus area in strengthening nuclear security implementation, and stated: “The United States will continue to develop initiatives for reducing the number of vulnerable high activity radioactive sources through continued research and development on non-radioisotopic alternative technologies, international workshops and collaboration, and direct site engagement.”
Today, we are pleased to release Transitioning from High-Activity Radioactive Sources to Non-Radioisotopic (Alternative) Technologies: A Best Practices Guide for Federal Agencies, authored by the Interagency Working Group on Alternatives to High-Activity Radioactive Sources. The Interagency Working Group was composed of representatives of Federal agencies involved in the procurement, use, funding, operation, certification, and licensing, and certification of high-activity radioactive sources. The Working Group examined existing policies, practices, and efforts, solicited views from external stakeholders, and identified recommendations for the Federal government to transition to alternative non-radioisotopic technologies. The recommendations cover four categories of possible Federal action: (1) Federal procurement and grant-making; (2) agency priorities; (3) education and outreach; and (4) research and development. The Working Group also recommends the Federal government should:
The transition to non-radioisotopic technologies is an important issue not only for the United States but for all countries that possess radioactive sources. In the United States there has been a significant transition from traditional Cobalt-60 sources to linear accelerators, while the use of Cobalt-60 sources for gamma stereotactic radiosurgery remains prevalent. Due to economic and resource challenges, many countries continue to rely on Cobalt-60 units as their primary source for radiation therapy. There are potential safety, security and environmental risks associated with the high-activity material. By leading the transition to non-radioisotopic technologies, the United States can set an example for the rest of the industrialized and developing world.
The Working Group will continue to serve as an interagency forum for coordinating efforts related to alternative technologies and encouraging interagency dialogue and cooperation. We hope that this Best Practices Guide will inspire similar efforts in the private sector.
Matthew Heavner is Assistant Director for Global Security at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.