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THE NATION

Colleges Could Yield 'Dirty' Bomb Materials

Terrorism: Medical labs and nuclear reactors produce the needed radioactive substances. And some say their security can be lax.

June 12, 2002|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- At UCLA, nearly 11,000 parcels containing radioactive materials arrive on campus each year, and 4,700 people are authorized to use the potentially hazardous substances. At UC Davis, UC Irvine and more than 20 other universities nationwide, staff members run nuclear reactors for research purposes.

From medicine to archeology to training nuclear engineers, radioactive material long has played an important role on campus. On Tuesday, the potential dangers were highlighted when the Pentagon's second-ranking official suggested that Jose Padilla, the alleged "dirty" bomb plotter, had his eyes on college sources for his planned bomb.

"This man actually thought he could get [radioactive substances] from places like university labs," said Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of Defense, on the NBC program "Today." "I have no idea how difficult that would be, but there is nuclear material around a lot of places."

In recent years, several universities have been cited for lax handling of radioactive materials--tossing them in the trash, leaving them in unlocked rooms or allowing workers to be exposed at unacceptable levels.

But the schools involved have said they have improved procedures. And since Sept. 11, tougher security measures have been required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees radioactive materials, in some cases in tandem with state officials.

Radioactive substances are used mainly in three areas on campuses: in medical treatment at hospitals, in research labs and at the 28 university nuclear reactors used for research. "Just about every major research university has research that involves radioactive materials," said Alexander Adams, an NRC staff member.

University officials say spent fuel from research reactors is only occasionally stored on campus, is heavily secured and is so toxic that it would take special procedures to transport it. But several officials said they could not rule out that a determined person could find less-toxic types of waste from biology laboratories or hospitals.

"I think there's always the potential for someone to do that," said Rick Greenwood, who is in charge of environmental health at UCLA. "Security on university campuses is not always the best."

"If someone were trying to find radioactive materials to scare people with, a vulnerable area would be medical schools," said Allen Sessoms, a physicist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a member of an Energy Department advisory board on nuclear research policy.

These materials include a radioactive form of iodine, used to control thyroid tumors, as well as technesium-99m, which doctors use in scanning and imaging body parts, said Ara Tahmassian, assistant vice chancellor for research services at UC San Francisco. Biologists use other materials to tag molecules and track their movement through a cell or organism.

Less common are materials such as cesium 137, which is more toxic and used to suppress the immune systems of research animals or to cause mutations in cells, Tahmassian said.

Most such research materials have a short half-life, meaning that they lose their toxicity quickly, sometimes within hours. When used in medical treatments, they are usually ordered specifically for each patient because their potency fades so quickly.

At UC San Francisco, all radioactive materials arrive at a central place on campus, where they are logged in and then distributed to labs or hospital offices. Under state and federal rules, all projects that require radioactive materials need a license. Workers must be trained to handle the materials.

Waste materials are collected and stored at a central facility on campus, and most is held until it decays and is no longer radioactive, Tahmassian said. Most campuses hold waste for 90 to 120 days before shipping it to a commercial storage facility, including one in Utah and one in South Carolina, he said.

Officials at MIT, UCLA and other universities described similar procedures for receiving and handling radioactive materials.

Nuclear reactors were once more common on campuses. There were 64 in 1980, but a falloff in student interest and other factors has reduced the number to 28 today.

Unlike a traditional nuclear plant, which aims to generate energy, a research reactor produces energy as waste and radioactive material as the useful product. The plants are used to train nuclear engineers but also to make radioactive materials used in a wide variety of other fields.

To determine whether two pieces of ancient pottery come from the same source, for example, an archeologist might bombard the pottery fragments with neutrons from a reactor. The pottery would then emit gamma rays. The ray patterns would reveal what tiny amounts of various elements are inside the clay, allowing comparisons between the pottery samples.

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