CNN examines the world’s most dangerous radioactive material

As part of CNN Tech’s series “Why,” the network checked in with experts to examine where some of the world’s deadliest radioactive material happens to be stored and how little more government can do about it.

Explaining the premise of the episode, which you can watch above, CNN has teamed up with Boston College School of Medicine and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, among others, for a deeper dive into some of the world’s deadliest accidental radioactive material.

According to CNN’s contributing scientist and author Dr. Thomas C. Zurbuchen, who is set to address the “Why?” episode, the nuclear industry was essentially born out of “an effort to create a more difficult, but still manageable, safe universe where these problems could be solved.”

“It turned out to be so difficult, however, that we had no choice but to grow the capability to do these more than tasks were ever meant to be done,” he said.

Some of the biggest yet least known examples of deadly nuclear material are also the most easily accessible, CNN learned in the latest installment of “Why?” According to CNN Science contributor and industry expert Dr. Ana Mansoor, these locations are found in places like Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a national park in Utah with no roads or infrastructure and no fire department, which she said is ideal for storage.

That’s not all.

“There’s a risk of there not being anyone around who is capable of dealing with this material,” Mansoor said. “This material is extremely difficult to protect and it has a very low design life — when you talk about something storing 100 years, it’s not that kind of material — but it’s extremely easy to move.”

“And it’s really hard to move it.”

“When you think about these materials you think about radioactivity, and they’re the most dangerous materials known to man,” Dr. Alec Wagner, a fellow in the Office of Research and Development at the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in an episode preview. “They’re the radiation equivalent of a few radium-226 atoms.”

When it comes to the locations where CNN discovered lethal radioactive material, there’s plenty of room for improvement, Dr. Shanna Hansen, chief medical officer of Critical Access Hospitals, said.

“We have an issue in this country — particularly in poor areas — where those communities don’t have access to emergency services,” she said. “There’s also a really high possibility that people are going to travel long distances and seek out these materials, and they’re just going to take the risk and put themselves at risk.”

In addition to waiting for it to happen, the US government could do more to address the dangers of its deadliest radioactive material, CNN said in its latest “Why?” episode.

The Pew Charitable Trusts agrees that removing dangerous radioactive material from untenable locations is a necessity.

“Keeping dangerous radioactive materials out of the hands of persons that should not have access to them, such as medical personnel, the military, and the building owners,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ report, requires “a coordinated regulatory, enforcement, liability, and funding strategy.”

So which locations should the US government focus on? CNN learned about eight places around the country — including a Native American village and a landfill — where dangerous radioactive material is considered extremely vulnerable to environmental or physical tampering.

CNN followed up with officials in several of these locations, including the remote Sweetwater Reservoir in Texas. There, the radioactive material discovered by CNN has already appeared in a number of people’s bodies, and it could easily happen again.

“This stuff really is something that, if someone, what are you going to do if there’s a release somewhere?” said Dr. Kenneth Rasmussen, chief of radioactive materials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “And so certainly that’s a big concern.”

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