Scientific American introduces us to the RadSecure program, which aims to keep the radioactive isotopes in use all around us from getting too close for comfort (or good health):
Radioactive material is not always bad in a black-and-white way: it can be a useful tool. The gamma rays emitted by cesium and cobalt can kill germs multiplying in your meat and make your apples last longer. Radiographic instruments can detect, say, defects in a city’s pipes in a similar way to an x-ray picking up a hairline fracture in your patella. A practice called “well logging” uses sealed radioactive sources to map the geology of holes oil seekers drill into the earth. And of course, radiation is key to cancer treatment.
The risk arises because the same radioactive material that is beneficial could also be stolen or misplaced and find its way into trafficking rings or dirty bombs. It might also harm workers if something accidentally goes wrong during a normal nine-to-five day. In 2017 alone, according to a report from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, there were 171 “incidents of nuclear or other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control,” based on open source reports, 104 of which happened in the U.S.
Both the material’s presence and its potential problems were news to Ryan Grothe, of Denver Police Department’s Special Operations Division. He received that news around 2018, courtesy of the Office of Radiological Security (ORS) at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. “I doubt hardly anyone in this entire department really understood what was sitting within the city,” Grothe says.
Grothe’s current work with ORS is part of an initiative called RadSecure 100, which aims to remove or better secure energetic material in 100 U.S. cities. “Where is the most high-risk material located around the most people?” says Emily Adams, deputy director of ORS’s domestic program. “And that‘s how we got our 100.”
Inside each metropolitan area, ORS presents two options to sites with emissive atoms: It can, with facilities’ voluntary permission, remove the radioactive devices and replace them with equivalent—or better—technology. Or it can help the sites improve their security.