(NaturalNews) Hospitals have become a major source of nuclear waste in the United States, producing and storing millions of radioactive materials each year with no long-term disposal plan. Experts increasingly fear that such waste could pose health hazards or be stolen by terrorists and used to build dirty bombs.
"Instead of safely secured in one place, it's stored in thousands of places in urban locations all over the United States," said nuclear waste consultant Rick Jacobi.
Hospitals and other health facilities use radioactive material for a variety of functions, from examination to treatment. For example, radiation from cobalt and powdered cesium is used to sterilize blood and medical equipment, while cobalt is also used to kill diseased brain tissue. Capsules of cesium are implanted next to tumors to kill cancerous cells, and thin tubes of radioactive material are used to operate gauges and other diagnostic devices.
The federal government has long had a policy that individual states should build sites where radioactive waste produced in that state can be stored and disposed of, but failed to create penalties for states that did not comply. As a consequence, only three such radioactive waste facilities exist in the United States.
The first such site, South Carolina's Barnwell Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility, used to accept waste from 39 states across the country, seal it in concrete, and bury it. But on July 1, a new state law went into effect, restricting use of the facility to waste generated in South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Due to a widespread citizen aversion to having radioactive waste stored anywhere near neighborhoods or wild areas, the odds are not high that many new landfills will be built any time soon -- only one, in Utah, has opened in the last 30 years. Plans are in the works for a new facility in Texas, but that site would accept waste only from Texas and Vermont. A group of four southern states sued North Carolina in 2002 for failing to build a radioactive waste storage site, but the case is still pending.
As a consequence, hospitals - along with pharmacies, research labs and the manufacturers of devices for those facilities - are left with the task of storing and disposing of their own waste. Some hospitals, such as those affiliated with Louisiana State University (LSU), have turned to outside companies for disposal.
"The vendor picks it up a couple of times a year," said Donell Chagnard, safety and risk management director of LSU Health Sciences Center. Chagnard seemed to be uncertain exactly what the vendor does with the radioactive waste, however.
"Some of it is probably burned, some is probably buried," he said.
Other facilities simply store the material on site until its radioactivity drops to levels considered safe for normal disposal. At some institutions, this waste is stored in highly secure, lead-lined safes, clearly marked with warning labels and even protected by alarmed doors. These procedures are in line with a government directive issued after September 11, 2001, that radioactivity sources be secured from possible theft by terrorists, using measures such as 24-hour surveillance and the fingerprinting of employees.
At other institutions, however, radioactive waste may simply be piled up in basements or closets.
While the government officially monitors the disposal of radioactive waste, officials admit that inspections occur only once every five years or so. Furthermore, a 2003 Government Accountability Office report concluded that the government doesn't even know how many facilities around the country are even using or storing radioactive materials, and that tracking of such material remained inadequate.
Experts fear that poor storage and disposal practices place radioactive materials at risk of being lost or stolen, with potentially grave health consequences.
"I don't think we're yet in crisis, but certainly there's information out there to suggest we may be closer to that than is comfortable for me," said Gregory Jaczko of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Such concerns are not without foundation: the NRC reports that at least 4,363 sources of radioactivity are already known to have been lost, stolen or abandoned, with less than half of them eventually recovered. While none of the material was considered radioactive enough to cause death within an hour or permanent injury within minutes, there is no guarantee that it might not end up somewhere that people might be exposed for long enough periods to cause danger.
"They'll end up offered up on eBay and flea markets and sent to landfills, or metal recycling plants - places where you don't want them to be," said Stephen Browne, radiation control officer at Troxler Electronic Laboratories, which manufactures radiation-employing industrial gauges.
Such incidents have already occurred; in 1987, an abandoned cancer-therapy machine was salvaged and sold as scrap metal by looters in Brazil, leading to the deaths of four people and to hundreds of cases of radiation sickness.
National security concerns have also been raised, with some officials fearing that terrorists could steal radioactive material from poorly secured facilities and use them to build dirty bombs - conventional explosive devices that disperse radioactive material into the air. Although it would actually be very difficult to get hold of enough radioactive material to build a dirty bomb that could actually cause radiation poisoning, experts believe that the fear caused by such a bomb could lead to serious civil unrest. It was concerns over dirty bombs that led the National Research Council to recommend recently that cobalt-cesium medical devices be phased out and replaced with less radioactive alternatives.
Both state and federal officials agree that wider steps are needed to address the problem.
"It's a national issue," said Rich Janati, chief of nuclear safety for Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, "and we should look at it as a national problem and come up with a solution."