November 27, 2010 in Nation/World

Radioactive rods found, after alert

Jordan Steffen Tribune Washington bureau
 

WASHINGTON – A shipment of radioactive rods used in medical equipment that went missing on Thanksgiving Day was found Friday in Tennessee by the shipping company FedEx.

While the materials posed little threat to the public, experts say the misplaced shipment underscores the need to track low-hazard materials that could be used in small-scale terrorist attacks.

The rods are used to calibrate quality control in CT scans and contained little energy and a low concentration of radiation, according to Sandra Munoz, FedEx spokesperson. The shipment was sent from Fargo, N.D., and was reported missing at its destination in Knoxville, Tenn. FedEx alerted all of its U.S. stations about the missing shipment.

The shipment was found at a FedEx station in Knoxville, Munoz said. The shipping label was missing from the outer box. All the rods were intact and no FedEx employees were exposed to radiation.

Three shipments of radioactive rods were mailed earlier this week. The recipient notified FedEx when only two containers arrived in Knoxville, Munoz said.

The rods were packed in a metal cylinder, known as a pig, which weighs about 20 pounds and is about 10 inches long.

As long as no one tried to open the pig, the rods did not pose a threat, Munoz said.

While it was unlikely anyone could have used the rods to create a serious weapon, low-hazard materials are becoming more attractive to terrorists who are less interested in Sept. 11-scale attacks and more interested in creating fear and economic damage, according to Edwin Lyman, senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, Mass.

Low-hazard materials are targeted by terrorist groups because they are not as closely regulated and are easier to obtain than high-hazard materials like plutonium, Lyman said. Low-hazard materials, often used in medical equipment, can be used to create “dirty bombs” that cause fewer casualties but create a “shock to the system.” Dirty bombs spray hazardous materials when they explode.

“The issue is what would happen if some evildoer acquired this thing,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military information website.

“Could these rods be used as part of a good plan? I don’t think so,” Pike said. “But if we look around over the past several years we’re not seeing very many good plans. We’re seeing plans where somebody is trying to set his underwear on fire.”

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