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An equipment issue at the Prairie Island plant near Red Wing hasn’t impacted electric service, but it could lead to higher fuel costs that are passed down to Xcel’s customers on their m…
A radioactive threat found in the middle of America's fourth largest city raises alarm
A Houston Police Department officer driving to work last month felt the buzzing vibration alert of a cell-phone sized device provided by the federal government as part of a grant program.
The buzzing was no phone call. It was a warning, about dangerous levels of radiation, right in the midst of the fourth largest city in America.
And the detector that found it was one of 2,000 carried in Houston – and 56,000 nationwide – aimed at preventing terrorists from slipping a radiation-spewing “dirty bomb” onto American streets.
Now, budget fights in Congress and a House majority seeking major spending cuts mean the office that supplied those detectors is on the chopping block.
During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last week, representatives questioned the work of – and funding for – huge swaths of the federal security agencies, often focusing on border security.
But testimony that day from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas brought to light the work of one lesser-known arms of anti-terror work: the agency’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office.
He offered it as an example of where the system worked as intended, supporting a local agency to ward off disaster before it happened.
How 'hot' material ended up in a Houston scrap yard
As the detector buzzed Oct. 16, the Houston officer first suspected a false alarm. He circled his car back around to the same street. It went off again.
The detector, similar to a Geiger counter, was built to pick up gamma radiation. Soon, larger units arrived to help triangulate the radiation’s source.
DHS provides some officers backpack-sized devices. The agency says they can detect material as far as a mile away. It also provides truck-sized devices that can scan for radiation near major events like the Super Bowl and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Houston’s sensors led them to a recycling yard on the city’s northwest side. There, the bomb squad isolated containers the size of paint cans. Officers only needed to wear specialized protective gear when they were closest to the material, past a “turn-back line” alerted by their detectors.
The radiation was not coming from a dirty bomb. It was only harmful within a few feet. But it was real radiation.
The source was Cesium-137, a material used in commercial and industrial settings. It is found in medical radiation therapy devices to treat cancer. As the byproduct of nuclear fission, it’s also found at the scene of nuclear reactor disasters — think Chernobyl.
In Houston, the radiation-emitting canisters had been used as flow gauges at a chemical plant. Instead of being properly stored, they had ended up at the scrap yard.
A crew carefully recovered four radioactive sources and transferred them to a U.S. Department of Energy storage facility near San Antonio.
Texas authorities are investigating the chain of custody of the material to determine how it ended up in the scrap yard and how long it had been there. Owners of the yard, which police have not named, will not face penalties because they cooperated with authorities, said Sgt. James Luplow, a member of the HPD bomb squad.
“This is not a very common occurrence. We routinely encounter radioactive material, but nothing at this level,” Luplow said. “It’s a textbook example of having a lot of people cruising around with these detectors.”
The ongoing threat of radioactive waste
Radioactive material ends up in scrap yards and causes major headaches for workers and those called to dispose of it.
In 1984, a scrap metal sale in Mexico led to one of the largest radiation disasters in U.S. history. About 600 tons of radioactive steel from Juarez ended up in 28 states. In that case, Cobalt-60 pellets caused radiation poisoning where junkyard employees became nauseated, had their fingernails turn black and suffered sterilization.
With a 30-year half-life, cesium isotopes can present a long-lasting threat if not properly disposed of at a storage facility.
Radioactive contamination of scrap materials happens far more frequently than people realize, said Jessica Bufford, a senior program officer at the non-profit global security organization Nuclear Threat Initiative.
“We’re concerned that a determined adversary like a criminal group or terrorists or lone wolf actor could steal a cesium device and use it as part of a dirty bomb to cause panic,” Bufford said. “It could be transported in powder form easily through water or air and spread over a large area.”
The material found in the Houston scrap yard was discarded waste, not a dirty bomb. But authorities say the need for detecting the radiation is the same in either scenario.
“You’d be detecting bombs,” said Luplow, the Houston sergeant. “But we’d much prefer to find it just in the material form, and it’s a lot easier to deal with.”
'No border security, no funding'
The Houston incident first came to light when Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified last week in front of the House panel.
Without naming the location, agency or date of the incident, Mayorkas said cryptically: “a local law enforcement officer equipped with some of the equipment we provide to detect radiological and nuclear material was wearing a device that detected abandoned material in a very unsafe location that could have caused tremendous harm to the people in the surrounding community.”
A DHS official referred further questions about details on the incident to Houston police.
The Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office within DHS, created in 2018, had a five-year sunset clause and will shutter without reauthorization by Congress.
The Biden administration specifically lobbied key committees to save the DHS office and the jobs of roughly 230 employees plus 400 contractors. DHS officials want to see the office permanently funded. With a budget of $400 million a year, the staff works to detect chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.
The office works with 14 “high-risk” urban areas: New York City; Newark and Jersey City; Los Angeles and Long Beach; the Washington, D.C. area; Houston; Chicago; Atlanta; Miami; Denver; Phoenix; San Francisco; Seattle; Boston; and New Orleans.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, and 14 other Republicans signed on to a letter seeking no DHS funding until the changes: “No border security, no funding,” he wrote in a letter to colleagues.
Sunday, November 19, 2023
Stephanie Cooke has authored another strong piece ...
Friday, November 17, 2023
Work in the reactor cavities is about 96 percent done. When finished, the hundreds of thousands of gallons of water will be purified to the level of acceptable drinking water so it can safely be discharged into the ocean.