The final official list contains only fifteen risky isotopes. (Other commercial isotopes, such as polonium, which was employed in London last autumn to murder the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, can kill individuals or small groups but cannot cause damaging long-term ground contamination; these materials are not classified as a security risk.) Because of their widespread availability and their potency, the isotopes of greatest concern are cesium, cobalt, and americium. There are, for example, several hundred irradiation machines in the United States that employ large amounts of cobalt and cesium, and thousands more of these machines are scattered around the world under light control—Ethiopia has at least one, and Ukraine has at least a hundred. Investigators in Markey’s office, searching the Web, found one such machine, with its entire stockpile of cobalt, available for free, provided that a customer would haul the material away; the machine was in Lebanon. [All emphasis mine.]The Bush Administration spends about $400 million a year on an international network of sensitive "radiation sniffer" sensors and an admirable (but ultimately inadequate) $1 billion on securing loose nuclear material (primarily in former Soviet republics or client states). However, countries like Pakistan, where A.Q. Khan retains folk hero status, are not part and parcel to such counter-proliferation efforts. And those much-touted sensors cannot detect "dull" materials like uranium or the above noted isotopes. As the article states, even bananas contain potassium-40, a radioactive isotope that, while harmless, will set off radiation detectors; thousands of such false alarms occur every day. Meanwhile, tighter business regulations on the disposition of radioactive waste from medical products and in industrial areas, costing a relatively paltry $50 million a year, could do far more to prevent the domestic accumulation of radioactive material necessary for a "dirty" bomb.
But, we must remember, business regulations ultimately end up costing the industries involved far more money than they currently spend; for an administration where adherence to ideology trumps pragmatism, such kowtowing to "liberal" ideas of business regulation are anathema. De-regulation and the shrinking of government must be the goal, even where it comes at the expense of practical security. This is why, for example, our chemical industries remain woefully under-regulated when it comes to the physical security of their industrial plants, where a detonated bomb could disperse deadly gases -- like chlorine -- into the air, affecting far more people than a dirty bomb or even a "suitcase nuke." In this sense, the conservative fidelity to privatization prevents us from actually attaining a measure of safety that would cost far less to the economy than one terrorist event could.
[This piece is cross-posted at Often Right, Rarely Correct.]