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Back to Archives | Back to September 2010 Contents 

Preventing the Theft of Dangerous Radiological Materials

By Edward Baldini, Lieutenant, Homeland Security Unit, Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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national radiological dispersal device (RDD) exercise involving more than 24 federal, state, and local agencies was conducted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the week of April 26, 2010, to test the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to a mock dirty-bomb attack. The exercise, called Liberty Radiation Exercise (Liberty RadEx), simulated a terrorist RDD attack in Philadelphia. The scenario envisioned a suicide bomber with explosives and cesium-137, a radioactive isotope. While a conventional explosion could cause hundreds of deaths and significant damage to adjacent buildings, the detonation of an RDD could lead to additional significant consequences. The exercise demonstrated the detection of radiation would impede lifesaving efforts in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Emergency evacuations would be ordered for citizens in areas downwind of the explosion. Within days, a large area of the population northeast of the blast could require relocation. Radiological contamination could spread 50 miles through Philadelphia and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, impacting commercial, industrial, and residential areas including roadways, mass transit, hospitals, schools, and businesses.1

Some law enforcement agencies may not know the locations of risk-significant quantities of radioactive or nuclear materials stored and used in their communities. Each agency must take the appropriate steps now to prevent an emergency situation like the hypothetical one for which Liberty RadEx was tested in Philadelphia from happening in the future.

The Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) has taken a number of steps to protect the city from this type of threat. It has a dedicated homeland security unit with its own investigative and response personnel, and the agency is the strongest partner in the Philadelphia Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) field office’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. PPD has officers deployed with radiation-detection equipment 24 hours a day and has the ability to outfit its aircraft and watercraft with this equipment as well. The agency has taken a leadership role in the preventive radiological/nuclear detection (PRND) mission and has worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) to implement strategies to interdict illicit radioactive materials from entering the city. Radiation-detection equipment is deployed at all special events that occur in the city including the Army-Navy Game, the last two World Series championships, and the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. PPD has a strong history of relationships with other agencies and works in a true partnership with private-sector radiological professionals to secure the city. Of note is a relationship between the PDD and the University of Pennsylvania; their police and their radiation safety officials made the introduction of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) program, described later on, seamless. The next logical step was to identify and help secure the known risk-significant, high-priority sources of radioactive material in the city. The remainder of this article describes how that was accomplished and the benefits realized by the PPD.

Anticipating a Terrorist Threat

The key to ensuring that a scenario like the one envisioned in Liberty RadEx does not become reality is to prevent terrorists and other potential adversaries from acquiring the radioactive sources that could be used in an RDD in the first place. U.S. government officials continue to state that al-Qaeda and other opponents seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including radioactive materials that could be used in an RDD. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III recently testified that “al-Qaeda remains committed to its goal of conducting attacks inside the United States. . . . Further, al-Qaeda’s continued efforts to access chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material pose a serious threat to the United States.”2 The Central Intelligence Agency states that “al-Qaida is interested in RDDs or ‘dirty bombs.’ Construction of an RDD is well within its capabilities as radiological materials are relatively easy to acquire from industrial or medical sources.”3 The recent attempted Times Square, New York, bombing and numerous other thwarted attacks and arrests demonstrate that the terrorist threat is not limited to overseas, and that homegrown terrorism is real.

Securing Radioactive Materials

The potential use of radioactive materials in a terrorist act is of significant concern because of the widespread availability and the use of radioactive materials by open civilian sites including industry, hospitals, and academic institutions. Loss or theft of such materials could lead to use by a terrorist for malicious purposes in an RDD. RDDs could have catastrophic consequences, including infrastructure damage and radioactive contamination, which could prohibit the use of a large geographical area, generate casualties and widespread panic, and create economic losses in the billions of dollars. It is important to note that not all RDDs need be explosively driven.

Radioactive sources located at thousands of civilian sites worldwide are used for legitimate and beneficial commercial purposes including cancer treatments, sterilization of blood and food, oil exploration, remote electricity generation, industrial radiography, instrument calibration, and scientific research. Medical, academic, and research sites are open environments that remain accessible to a large number of people. Unlike isolated military sites that limit the number of personnel, open facilities are more difficult to secure and could be viewed as soft targets by potential adversaries.

The vulnerabilities of civilian-use radioactive sources were documented by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In its study Radiation Source Use and Replacement, NAS notes the vulnerability of cesium-137 sources in medical and research irradiators and the potential consequences of their use in an RDD. The NAS study called for the replacement of these sources, stating, “The committee recommends that the U.S. government take steps in the near term to replace radioactive cesium chloride radiation sources, a potential ‘dirty bomb’ ingredient used in some medical and research equipment, with lower-risk alternatives.”4

Philadelphia, like other large cities in the United States, has a number of sites with cesium-137 sources similar to the one envisioned in the Liberty RadEx scenario. Ensuring these sources are secure is critical. Philadelphia is a major metropolitan area, designated Tier 1 under the DHS Urban Area Security Initiative. The city is the sixth most populous in the country and has the fourth largest consumer media market. The city has historical, financial, trade, and military infrastructure (for example, the Federal Stock Exchange, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, the Port of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Naval Yard). Philadelphia’s highways and railroads serve as conduits for transportation through the East Coast. PPD prioritized securing these sites within its jurisdiction and assisted its surrounding communities in doing the same. This new mission was a logical extension of its existing PRND mission and overarching homeland security efforts.

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI)

Philadelphia has partnered with the NNSA GTRI to further enhance security of radioactive sources in and around Philadelphia. The mission of the GTRI is to reduce and protect vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials located at civilian sites worldwide. Through its voluntary security enhancement efforts, GTRI works to further increase the protection of radiological sources or nuclear materials located at public and commercial facilities above and beyond existing regulatory security requirements. Approximately 2,700 buildings in the United States contain radiological or nuclear materials that meet the GTRI’s criteria for high-priority materials that could be used in an RDD or nuclear device, according to a document for official use only, prepared by the NNSA GTRI and not available to the public.

GTRI’s voluntary domestic security effort is endorsed by the DHS, the DNDO, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the Organization of Agreement States (OAS). Under the GTRI program, security experts from the Department of Energy’s national laboratories provide security assessments, share observations, and make recommendations for enhancing security above and beyond increased controls required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. GTRI funds the installation of agreed-upon security enhancements. Typical security enhancements include automated access controls, motion sensors, radiation sensors, electronic seals, alarm-control and display systems, remote monitoring to off-site response locations, enhanced guard-force communications and protection equipment, delay elements, and transportation security enhancements.

GTRI has extensive radiological material security efforts under way in Philadelphia, which would make Philadelphia the first major metropolitan area to have completed the voluntary security upgrades. GTRI is working at 29 buildings that have 35 devices with radioactive sources greater than 10 curies (totaling approximately 193,986 curies) in the Greater Philadelphia area. All radiological sites in Philadelphia are scheduled for completion in 2010. Between 2009 and 2010, GTRI will have invested approximately 6 million dollars in the Greater Philadelphia area to enhance the security of radiological material. The strong existing relationship between the University of Pennsylvania and the PPD facilitated the pilot portion of the GTRI program. University radiation safety personnel had regularly trained with university and the city police in PRND programs in the past. The University of Pennsylvania is a model site, which became the first site to complete the voluntary security enhancements program in March 2009, and one of the first sites to participate in a GTRI-sponsored tabletop exercise.5 The work at the University of Pennsylvania was recognized externally as an important milestone and led to calls for acceleration and expansion of GTRI radioactive-site voluntary security enhancements. For example, Ken Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, recently testified before the U.S. Congress, stating, “The NNSA has completed a pilot project with the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to make all the hospital’s radiological sources more secure and to initiate cooperation with the local authorities. In the United States, approximately 500 major metropolitan hospital buildings use radiological sources. At a cost of roughly $250,000 per building, the total cost of securing all of them would be about $125 million. The United States should commit to take this course . . .”6

GTRI also plans to implement security enhancements at the 14 additional sites with high-priority radioactive sources in the surrounding areas. These sites are located in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. Philadelphia would be at least one likely target if terrorists acquired materials for a dirty bomb from any of these sites.

On-site guard forces are not always sufficiently equipped or trained to handle a determined, armed adversary. Site guards may not be armed at all or may be too few in number to defend against more than a single armed opponent. To ensure an adequately equipped and trained response and that force arrives in sufficient strength and time to prevent the adversary from leaving a site with radioactive materials, GTRI relies on an “alert and notify” security strategy, whereby alarm data is transmitted in real time to off-site responders. Since response is such an essential component of this “alert and notify” strategy, GTRI works closely with local law enforcement and other response agencies when assessing and implementing security enhancements.

GTRI collaborated extensively with Philadelphia local law enforcement by providing training and equipment, including a pilot program providing $140,000 in personal radiation detectors (PRDs) to enable officers to respond safely to any attempted theft of radioactive materials. Upon completion of the security enhancements installation, the site housing radioactive materials is encouraged to update or establish comprehensive security procedures, in close coordination with its local law enforcement, that complement the newly integrated security.

In-Device Delay (IDD)

A key component of GTRI’s voluntary security enhancements is the concept of “delay.” Increasing the amount of time an adversary requires to access a radioactive source gives law enforcement more time to interrupt the adversary before the source can be stolen. GTRI is collaborating with private industries and other U.S. government agencies to develop in-device delay (IDD) kits for blood and research irradiators that use cesium chloride sources. GTRI is in the process of installing IDD kits on irradiators across the country.

Detection through Remote Monitoring

Another key component of GTRI’s voluntary security enhancements is detection. Detection provides notification to responders that a potential theft by an adversary is under way. GTRI detection upgrades include biometric access control devices, door alarms, motion sensors, cameras, electronic tamper indicating seals, and area radiation monitors. The centerpiece of GTRI’s detection enhancements is a remote monitoring system. The remote monitoring system is designed to provide reliable transmission of alarms to responders and address the insider threat. Alarms are simultaneously transmitted to multiple on-site and off-site locations such as central alarm stations, alarm monitoring services, local police departments, and regional fusion centers. In Philadelphia, GTRI will provide remote monitoring links from sites in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas to the regional fusion center, Delaware Valley Information Center, which is scheduled to be operational in December 2010.

Alarm Response Training

A well-equipped, well-trained response force of appropriate size is a vital component of GTRI security enhancements. GTRI collaborates with security personnel and local law enforcement to provide the tools and training necessary to adequately respond to a security incident. Key responders are often off-site local law enforcement. Many law enforcement officials are not made aware of the nature of the radioactive material that is in use at civilian sites. To ensure that responders understand how to respond to alarms from these sites in a safe manner, GTRI developed an alarm response training course. Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania police participated in the program’s pilot three-day training course in January 2009. The alarm response training includes radiation-safety staff members who join on-site security staff and local law enforcement in a unique, integrated, scenario-based training experience focused on radiological source theft. Additional site and law enforcement representatives from Philadelphia are scheduled to participate in the alarm response training course in September and October 2010.

The alarm response training course is delivered at the NNSA’s Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and is offered to GTRI participating sites and respective alarm response forces. The specialized training offers participants the opportunity to exercise response procedures, tactics, and techniques in lifelike situations. The course is divided into classroom training, tabletop exercises, and fast-paced scenario play utilizing actual radioactive sources and real security alarm equipment such as biometrics, surveillance cameras, balanced magnetic switches, dual-technology motion sensors, and the GTRI remote monitoring system (RMS). The operational exercise scenarios build on classroom instructions and allow response forces to exercise their own procedures during realistic alarm scenarios.

The use of radioactive sources in the scenario exercises provides an opportunity for the facility staff and response forces to learn about the proper use of the PRDs in an attempted source theft situation. The PRD indicates when responders are in high doserate radiation fields and provides variable alarms to alert them of the situation. As part of the security enhancement program, PRDs are provided to the volunteer facilities. An additional two-day PRD train-the-trainer course, focused on PRD use and deployment, is available to GTRI partner sites but is not yet included in the Federal Sponsored Course Catalog.

At its core, the course offers an opportunity for the respective sites’ personnel, including radiation safety officers and alarm response forces, to come together to develop a better awareness, understanding, and appreciation of each others’ concerns, challenges, and procedures. It provides a setting in which to establish initial contacts, relationships, and coordination before an incident occurs. The alarm response training course is free for participants as GTRI pays for everything but salaries, including travel, hotel, rental car, and per diem. Though GTRI does not fund the trainee’s time, training-related costs for overtime and backfill costs associated with attendance at training and exercise integration/training operations–sponsored or approved training courses–may be allowable through the Homeland Security Grant Program for some agencies. The alarm response training course is approved by the DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Preparedness Directorate, the National Integration Center, and training and exercise integration/training operations. The course is listed in the Federal Sponsored Course Catalog under Alarm Response Training. Contact your State Administration Agency (SAA) for clarification.7

Tabletop Exercises

GTRI partners with the NNSA Office of the Undersecretary of Counterterrorism and the FBI’s WMD Directorate to sponsor tabletop exercises involving no-fault, site-specific scenarios in which federal, state, local, and private-sector officials can exercise their response to terrorist acts involving nuclear and radiological materials. Philadelphia law enforcement participated in one of the first GTRI-sponsored tabletop exercises in March 2009. The exercise promoted cross-sector communications, cooperation, and team building among all responders. Additionally, newly developed tactics, techniques, and procedures resulting from GTRI voluntary security enhancements were examined.


The threat of terrorists acquiring radioactive materials from sites in the United States, and the likelihood that they will use these materials for an RDD that would result in significant consequences, especially if detonated in a major metropolitan area, is real. Philadelphia had a strong baseline in protecting itself from an outside radiation threat. With officers on patrol and at special events, the PPD has covered the external threat in a convincing manner. The next logical step that occurred with the GTRI was that of protecting the known radioactive sources in its jurisdiction. Philadelphia is safer today as a result of its cooperation with the GTRI to enhance the security of radioactive sources in the city and in surrounding areas. Other cities could also benefit from undertaking similar efforts with GTRI. ■


1Liberty RadEx, National Tier 2 Full-Scale Radiological Dispersion Device Exercise (event agenda and brochure, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 26–30, 2010), (accessed July 30, 2010).
2Robert S. Mueller III, “Statement of Robert S. Mueller III,” before the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, 111th Cong., 2nd sess., March 17, 2010, (accessed July 30, 2010).
3CIA, “Terrorist CBRN: Materials and Effects” (updated June 20, 2008), (accessed July 30, 2010).
4The Committee on Radiation Source Use and Replacement, National Research Council, Radiation Source Use and Replacement: Abbreviated Version (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, February 20, 2008), see for access to the table of contents and related links to this document (accessed July 30, 2010).
5National Nuclear Security Administration, “NNSA, University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Police Raise the Bar for Radiological Security,” press release, March 27, 2009, (accessed July 30, 2010).
6Kenneth N. Luongo, “The Nuclear Security Summit: Achievements and Agenda for Action,” testimony before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, 111th Cong., 2nd sess., April 21, 2010, (accessed July 30, 2010).
7Federal Emergency Management Agency Protection and National Preparedness Directorate National Training and Education Division Federal Sponsored Course Catalog, (accessed July 30, 2010).

Please cite as:

Edward Baldini, "Preventing the Theft of Dangerous Radiological Materials," The Police Chief 77 (September 2010): 30–39, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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