Tighter Grip on Radioactive Material Urged

Times Staff Writer

The head of the California department that regulates radioactive materials said Friday the agency would seek to toughen security requirements and criminal penalties on the companies it is supposed to police.

The promise followed the disclosure by a television station that 30 radioactive devices that theoretically could be used by terrorists to make a so-called dirty bomb have been stolen around the state. There is no evidence that any of the thefts are actually linked to terrorism.

Diana Bonta, the director of the California Department of Health Services, told a state legislative committee meeting in Los Angeles that her agency has come to realize it needs to better prevent the theft of radioactive materials following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bonta, who along with Gov. Gray Davis met with Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge last week, said she would seek authority from the Legislature to levy fines and increase criminal penalties for stealing or failing to properly protect radioactive materials. The department will also seek to amend radioactive materials licenses to require companies to install alarms and immediately report thefts to authorities.

The announcement came amid mounting criticism that California regulators have been far too lax in protecting radioactive materials. A recent investigative report by KCBS-TV documented the theft of 30 radioactive devices of a type used in construction and other industries around the state. The lack of security is part of a nationwide problem, the report said.

The primary purpose of the legislative committee hearing by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) was to examine whether the Department of Health Services should be regulating radioactive materials at all. Romero is carrying legislation to give the authority to the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The radiologic health branch of Bonta's department is "a classic captured bureaucracy, too close to the industry it is supposed to regulate," Romero said during the hearing.

Alan Pasternak of Cal Rad Forum, an industry group, accused Romero of unfairly stacking the deck against the department by failing to invite scientists and industry groups who agree with the agency's positions on radioactive materials while giving ample time to environmental groups and anti-nuclear activists who dislike them.

"The hearing is not designed to get the best science," said Pasternak, who spoke as a member of the public and was not invited to participate.

In addition to the stolen radioactive devices, legislators discussed test results released this week by the state Environmental Protection Agency, which found numerous landfills around the state had abnormally high levels of radiation. At 22 of the 50 landfills tested, the radiation exceeded standards for drinking water, though officials were quick to note that the findings were preliminary and that natural sources such as uranium could account for at least some of the radiation found.

The hearing also heard from several people who had been jurors in an Orange County case involving claims of illegal dumping of radioactive materials. The jurors said the evidence in the case made them highly skeptical of the department's ability to police the industry.

"I have to tell you that I left that courtroom horrified," said one of the jurors, Kathleen Kott. The facts in the case "certainly don't make me feel DHS is out to protect me."

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