In 2004, the United State’s Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration established the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) to, as quickly as possible, identify, secure, remove and/or facilitate the disposition of high-risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world that pose a threat to the United States and the international community. While many sources of potentially dangerous amounts of nuclear material had been previously identified and secured with the assistance of their respective nations of origin, there still existed many so-called “soft targets” that used such isotopes for legitimate scientific and research purposes which could provide terrorists, with the building blocks for an effective weapon of mass destruction, namely a radiological dispersal device (RDD), or “dirty bomb.” Such soft targets include facilities that do not have the intrinsic security that a military or governmental research facility might enjoy, and examples include healthcare facilities (especially those that have significant oncology services where such isotopes are routinely used), academic institutions and civilian research facilities.

Since its inception, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative program has accelerated its nuclear security efforts and made significant progress to reduce the risk posed by these vulnerable civilian nuclear and radiological material storage sites. To date, physical protection upgrades have been completed in more than 40 countries at more than 960 radiological sites, including industrial, medical and commercial facilities. Since May 2004, GTRI secured more than 1,000 vulnerable radiological sites around the world containing more than 10,000,000 curies – enough for approximately 10,000 dirty bombs.

Securing such materials typically takes one of three forms. Reactor conversion is the process by which reactors are physically altered from the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU), which results in permanent threat reduction because the minimization/elimination of HEU in civilian applications means one less source of RDD or dirty bomb material. Physical removal and/or disposal of excess nuclear and radiological WMD grade materials likewise results in permanent threat reduction because each kilogram or curie of any dangerous material that is removed reduces the risk that a theft of the material in significant quantities will occur. The third and most common form of mitigation for hospitals and research facilities in the U.S., the “hardening of the target” through rapidly upgrading the physical security of such sites and specific training of security and law enforcement personnel, is the focus of this article. In the U.S. since May 2004, the GTRI program has assisted in the removal of more than 13,000 at-risk radiological sources. Over the life of the program, tens of thousands of radioactive sources have been secured around the country, but much work remains to be done.

In a U.S. Government Accountability Office report dated March of 2012 (GAO-12-512T), the GAO was critical of the efforts to secure such materials in the U.S. and the dangers that they posed to the public, and then in September 2012, a scathing report from the GAO about the same issue specific to the nuclear material storage in hospitals was released (GAO-12-925). The reason for this industry focused report, according to the GAO, is due to the fact that current Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements “do not consistently ensure the security of high-risk radiological sources” in hospitals and healthcare facilities, and that “One reason for this is that the requirements are broadly written and do not prescribe specific measures that hospitals and medical facilities must take to secure medical equipment containing sealed sources, such as the use of cameras or alarms. Rather, the requirements provide a general framework for what constitutes adequate security practices, which is implemented in various ways at different hospitals. Some of the medical equipment in the facilities visited was more vulnerable to potential tampering or theft than that of other facilities because some hospitals developed better security controls than others.” Two excerpts from this report clearly illustrate some of the issues to which the GAO report speaks:

“At a hospital in a major U.S. city, we observed that the interior door to the hospital blood bank, which had a cesium-137 blood irradiator of approximately 1,500 curies, had the combination to the lock written on the door frame. The door is in a busy hallway with heavy traffic, and the security administrator for the hospital said that he often walks around erasing door combinations that are written next to the locks.”

“One facility manager who oversees the security for an approximately 1,700 curie cesium-137 blood irradiator at a blood bank told us that he has a background in construction, not security. He said that it would have been helpful if NRC’s controls were more specific so that he would be in a better position to determine what security measures were necessary to adequately protect the device.”

Clearly, something must be done to make these areas more secure and prevent the potential threat of a criminal or terrorist obtaining such dangerous materials, but many facilities do not have the resources or subject matter expertise to even begin to implement reasonable and effective mitigation strategies. This is where the GTRI program comes in.

For hospitals and healthcare facilities interested in the Global Threat Reduction Initiative program, the first step is to contact the GTRI and request an assessment to determine if your facility is eligible for the grant funded security upgrades and training programs that the GTRI has to offer. This will begin the assessment process in which a team of security experts will conduct a survey of your facility or campus and meet with various personnel to better evaluate your current threat level and existing security measures. During this assessment, personnel, including those responsible for security at the site (in-house or contract services personnel), radiation safety officers, plant operations and maintenance staff, information technology and support representatives and local law enforcement, will be interviewed, and if the facility meets the initial requirements a site survey will be conducted. During this visit, existing physical security measures as well as policies and procedures regarding responses to breeches or attempted thefts of such materials will be reviewed and security options and upgrades will be discussed. Such upgrades can take the form of security video systems, unauthorized entry alarms, biometric access controls and specific security measures for the storage materials themselves (such as tie downs, tamper indicator devices and material monitoring systems). After reviewing the actual storage areas and existing physical security countermeasures, the GTRI team will then assess the response capabilities of the security personnel at the site (if applicable). Next, the survey team will meet with local law enforcement agencies that serve as first responders and review the response capabilities of the officers as well as the capabilities of their emergency call centers (for installation of a proprietary alarm system and training on how to respond to such alarms). The GTRI team will then have enough information to prepare a Statement of Work (SOW) for what is required, and the facility can begin the Request for Quote process with its designated equipment vendors and integrators.

In addition to the specific details about the requirements of proposed security upgrades and their functions, the SOW will also contain a detailed list of deliverables broken down by task number, description of each task and its due date and detailed lists of the performance specifications of the equipment to be installed such as alarms, security video and access controls. All such equipment must meet the applicable UL/ANSI approved standards for security applications and all working project papers, and files must be classified as Official Use Only (OUO).  This means that such information is unclassified but may be exempt from public release under the Freedom of Information Act (that could damage the site’s interests if disseminated inappropriately to non-authorized parties, which is very helpful when dealing with your legal and/or risk management departments about this process). Approximately 30 days after the upgrades and security equipment installations have been completed, the GTRI group will conduct an assurance visit to conduct a final review of the enhanced countermeasures and security processes that have been put into place. Per the SOW, the contractor/vendor shall perform two preventive maintenance visits per year over the two-year period. In addition, they must conduct performance testing of security components and system, once per quarter. This is in addition to a two-year extended warranty (three years total) on all equipment provided and installed, which will be provided by the contractor/vendor, and all of this is funded through the GTRI program at no cost to the facility.

Upon successful completion of this post- installation assurance visit, the facility is expected to provide sustainability of the equipment and related processes, with at least one tabletop exercise or drill conducted annually to test the capabilities of the system and to provide a “lessons learned” for quality and process improvement. This includes active participation of local law enforcement and any other agencies or personnel that are mentioned in the facility’s emergency response plan if an incident involving the radioactive source material should take place. This is why the additional first responder training provided by the GTRI program is so important. In addition to the site assessment and the additional security delay enhancements that are provided through the GTRI process (such as tie down kits, cages, grating, hardening of doors and bullet resistant glass where needed), there are outstanding training programs offered for alarm response, tabletop exercises and site response by law enforcement.

All of these training opportunities are included as a part of the GTRI grant-funded program and include travel, meals and accommodations for both facility and local law enforcement personnel that attend these programs. This not only provides a no-cost training opportunity for your on-site security staff, but also strengthens the relationships with local police and first responders by having your own security forces train along side them. This three-day course, which is held at the NNSA Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, teaches site security and local law enforcement how to protect themselves and their communities when responding to alarms indicating possible theft of civilian nuclear and radioactive materials and includes realistic scenarios using radioactive sources, irradiators and actual security equipment. This course is certified by the Department of Homeland Security and through the GTRI program, the NNSA pays for all attendee costs except for salary (e.g., travel, lodging, car rental and per diem).

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, through its Global Threat Reduction Initiative program, offer a variety of procedures for systematically improving security for nuclear material and radioactive sources. These include voluntary security upgrades and training opportunities for civilian sites with nuclear and radiological materials and their first responders (such as hospitals and research facilities), and such enhancements are completely federally-funded including minimum three-year warranty and maintenance on any newly installed equipment such as security video, access controls and alarm systems. This program, for those facilities that qualify, can provide critical and much needed security upgrades and training programs for its participants while ensuring the continued security of potentially dangerous WMD materials from those that would cause us harm. Security and convenience rarely go hand in hand, but in this case, the GTRI program has created the best of both worlds. It is just up to security executives to take advantage of it.



US Government Accountability Office (2012). Additional Actions Needed to Improve Security of Radiological Sources at U.S. Medical Facilities. Accessed December 14, 2012 from GAO website at:

US DOE National Nuclear Security Administration (2012). Fact Sheet GTRI: Reducing Nuclear Threats. Accessed December 14, 2012 from NNSA website at: 


This article was previously published in the print magazine as "Increasing Security Without Increasing Costs: Radiological Source Material and the Global threat Reduction Initiative Program."