On Sept. 6, 2023, an official from the Department of Energy (DOE) briefed a packed room. A terrorist had stolen radioactive material from the University of Utah hospital. It was Cesium-137, an extremely potent salt compound used in a common medical device —just a pinch of the stuff would make a devastating dirty bomb.
This was one in a series of scenarios posed during Wasatch Thunder, an all-day event where nearly 200 people from the University of Utah and local, state and federal agencies practiced their response should someone steal a radioactive source from the U. Co-hosted by the U, the FBI, and the DOE, Wasatch Thunder is part of the “Silent Thunder” program, created in 2008 by the Office of Radiological Security (ORS) to upgrade security for radioactive substances in the country. The ORS’s mission is to enhance global security by preventing radioactive materials from being used in acts of terrorism. They provide support, funding and free training to any institutions with sources in the U.S.
“As a leading healthcare system and research university, we need to have access to equipment that facilitates cutting-edge medical treatment and scientific inquiry. That means dealing with radioactive material,” said Frederick Monette, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) and Radiation Safety Officer of the U. “It’s crucial that we provide training, support and emergency responses to use that technology safely. Luckily, we don’t have to do it alone.”
Though highly unlikely, an attempted theft would trigger a massive, coordinated response at all levels, from the U campus to federal agencies. Wasatch Thunder brought all stakeholders to the Salt Lake City Marriott at Research Park to build connections and strengthen protocols ahead of a threat. Two dozen agency representatives spoke, sitting in a semi-circle at the front of the room. The assorted crew embodied the complexity of responding to a radioactive threat. They represented U of U Health hospital security, dispatchers, health physicists, ARUP Laboratories, University of Utah Emergency Management Division, EHS, Department of Public Safety, UPD, Office of the Dean of Students, Marketing & Communications, Intermountain Health, Salt Lake City police departments and fire departments, Salt Lake County Departments of Public Health, Emergency Management and United Fire Authority, Utah National Guard, Utah Transit Authority, Utah Department of Environmental Quality, FBI, and the Department of Energy. Also present were a hundred-plus others who participated in identifying areas where protocols could be improved.
Low probability, high consequence
Radioactive substances are everywhere, often providing benefits to our society. Cancer therapies, medical diagnoses, structural testing, wastewater treatment, and food sanitation utilize materials with scary sounding names, like cesium-137, iridium-129 or cobalt-60. Radioactive sources emit radiation with enough energy to knock electrons off atoms or molecules in a process called ionization. If weaponized, ionizing radiation can cause major physical, psychological and economic damage to an area. The Office of Radiological Security (ORS) uses three strategies to keep dangerous substances out of the wrong hands.
“Our mission is to protect, remove and reduce,” said Michael Fink representing ORS. “Protect radioactive sources used for vital medical, research and commercial purposes, remove or dispose of disused radioactive sources, and reduce global reliance of radioactive sources by replacing them with alternative technology, such as x-ray technology to replace blood and research irradiators.”
Unlike firearms or chemicals, stealing a radioactive substance can be a death sentence. Sources are encased in lead, concrete or water shielding that can’t be carried out easily. Lethality paired with heightened security make theft a low probability, but not a zero probability. In the past, law enforcement was most concerned about foreign adversaries, but that’s shifted in recent years.
“One of our biggest threats are local, homegrown violent extremists,” Michelle Cammack, assistant weapons of mass destruction coordinator at the FBI, told the group. “The internet and social media provide a conduit for radical ideas. They don’t travel out of the country to join a group. They do it here with no warning and no specialized training.”
Cammack shared several case studies that illustrated a rise in domestic terrorist plots over the last few years, though none involved radioactive material. She did share one incident from 1998, when someone stole 19 steel tubes of cesium-137 from Moses Cone Hospital in North Carolina. Authorities suspected that an employee was involved as an insider, but they had insufficient evidence to charge. The material was never recovered.
Radiation in research and health care
Why would the U risk housing radioactive substances? Radiation is a crucial tool for treating and detecting certain diseases, especially cancer. The Huntsman Cancer Institute can’t provide world-class cancer care without it. Some treatments use small radioactive “seeds” that doctors place surgically as close to a tumor as possible, killing cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy cells. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans use a radioactive substance injected into the bloodstream and travels to a specific organ. A special camera tracks how the substance moves through the body and can detect problems with the organ.
Hundreds of faculty members also utilize radioactive sources for research that makes our world better. Edward Cazalas, assistant professor of nuclear engineering in the U’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, attended the Wasatch Thunder event. His research aims to understand the physics and engineering of nuclear and radiation interactions, tools, and instruments for radiation detection development. How does he work with the U’s radioactive sources?
“Very carefully,” he said, laughing. One aspect of Cazalas’ research is exposing electronics to extreme radiation and testing their performance, a critical part of any mission that needs technology to function at high altitudes or in space.
“There’s lots of radiation in space,” Cazalas said. “If you think about a mission to Mars, the problem isn’t finding volunteers to go, or building the rockets to get there. The problem is the radiation.”
Cazalas attended Wasatch Thunder to better understand threats to sources that he works with.
“Nuclear terrorism threat analysis and interdiction has been an area of my research for some time. It is supremely important to keep our assets safe,” he said. “Most adversaries are dumb, but the smarter ones can cause much havoc and even cause national policy shifts.”
A sentiment shared repeatedly throughout the day was that building relationships is important to mitigate any threat—we can do it, but we can’t do it alone.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox expressed his confidence that Wasatch Thunder participants would build the necessary bridges in a recorded video message.
“Time and again we have seen Utahns step up and be at their best during emergencies and times of crisis, whether it be floods, fires, earthquakes, or the recent COVID pandemic. Unfortunately…we must also be ready to respond to intentional acts, including the potential use of a weapon of mass destruction,” he said. “I have no doubt that the relationships formed and strengthened today between federal, state, and local agencies and organizations will have long-lasting benefits to both Utahns and the nation as a whole.”
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Research communications specialist, University of Utah Communications