The material on this page is reprinted from N.G. Leveson, & C.S. Turner. "An Investigation of the Therac-25 Accidents." Computer, Vol. 26, No. 7, July 1993, pp. 18-41. Copyright © 1993 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This material is posted here with permission of IEEE. Such permission of the IEEE does not in any way imply IEEE endorsement of any of St. Olaf College's products or services. Internal or personal use of this material is permitted. However, permission to reprint/republish this material for advertising or promotional purposes or for creating new collective works for resale or redistribution must be obtained from the IEEE by sending a blank email message to email@example.com. By choosing to view this document, you agree to all provisions of the copyright laws protecting it.
Medical linear accelerators (linacs) accelerate electrons to create high-energy beams that can destroy tumors with minimal impact on the surrounding healthy tissue. Relatively shallow tissue is treated with the accelerated electrons; to reach deeper tissue, the electron beam is converted into X-ray photons.
In the early 1970's, Canadian Medical Corporation (CMC) and a French company called CGR collaborated to build linear accelerators. (CMC is an arms-length entity, called a crown corporation, of the Canadian Government.) Since the time of the incidents related in this article, CMC Medical, a division of CMC is in the process of being privatized and is now called Therapeutic Accelerators Limited. Currently CMC's primary business is the design and installation of nuclear reactors.) The products of CMC and CGR's cooperation were (1) the Therac-6, a 6 million electron volt (MeV) accelerator capable of producing X rays only and, later, (2) the Therac-20, a 20 Me V dual-mode (X rays or electrons) accelerator. Both were versions of older CGR machines, the Neptune and Sagittaire, respectively, which were augmented with computer control using a DEC PDP 11 minicomputer.
Software functionality was limited in both machines: The computer merely added convenience to the existing hardware, which was capable of standing alone. Industry-standard hardware safety features and interlocks in the underlying machines were retained. We know that some old Therac-6 software routines were used in the Therac-20 and that CGR developed the initial software.
The business relationship between CMC and CGR faltered after the Therac-20 effort. Citing competitive pressures, the two companies did not renew their cooperative agreement when scheduled in 1981. In the mid-1970's, CMC developed a radical new "double-pass" concept for electron acceleration. A double-pass accelerator needs much less space to develop comparable energy levels because it folds the long physical mechanism required to accelerate the electrons, and it is more economic to produce (since it uses a magnetron rather than a klystron as the energy source).
Using this double-pass concept, CMC designed the Therac-25, a dual-mode linear accelerator that can deliver either photons at 25 Me V or electrons at various energy levels (see Figure 1). Compared with the Therac-20, the Therac-25 is notably more compact, more versatile, and arguably easier to use. The higher energy takes advantage of the phenomenon of "depth dose": As the energy increases, the depth in the body at which maximum dose buildup occurs also increases, sparing the tissue above the target area. Economic advantages also come into play for the customer, since only one machine is required for both treatment modalities (electrons and photons).
Several features of the Therac-25 are important in understanding the accidents. First, like the Therac-6 and the Therac-20, the Therac-25 is controlled by a PDP 11. However, CMC designed the Therac-25 to take advantage of computer control from the outset; CMC did not build on a stand-alone machine. The Therac-6 and Therac-20 had been designed around machines that already had histories of clinical use without computer control.
In addition, the Therac-25 software has more responsibility for maintaining safety than the software in the previous machines. The Therac-20 has independent protective circuits for monitoring electron-beam scanning, plus mechanical interlocks for policing the machine and ensuring safe operation. The Therac-25 relies more on software for these functions. CMC took advantage of the computer's abilities to control and monitor the hardware and decided not to duplicate all the existing hardware safety mechanisms and interlocks. This approach is becoming more common as companies decide that hardware interlocks and backups are not worth the expense, or they put more faith (perhaps misplaced) on software than on hardware reliability.
Finally some software for the machines was interrelated or reused. In a letter to a Therac-25 user, the CMC quality assurance manager said, "The same Therac-6 package was used by the CMC software people when they started the Therac-25 software. The Therac-20 and Therac-25 software programs were done independently, starting from a common base." Reuse of Therac-6 design features or modules may explain some of the problematic aspects of the Therac-25 software development and design. The quality assurance manager was apparently unaware that some Therac-20 routines were also used in the Therac-25; this was discovered after a bug related to one of the Therac-25 accidents was found in the Therac-20 software.
CMC produced the first hardwired prototype of the Therac-25 in 1976, and the completely computerized commercial version was available in late 1982. In March 1983, CMC performed a safety analysis on the Therac-25. This analysis was in the form of a fault tree and apparently excluded the software. According the final report, the analysis made several assumptions:
The fault tree resulting from this analysis does appear to include computer failure, although apparently judging from these assumptions, it considers only hardware failures. For example, in one OR gate leading to the event of getting the wrong energy, a box contains "Computer selects wrong energy" and a probability of 10-11 is assigned to this event. For "Computer selects wrong mode," a probability of 4 x 10-9 is given. The report provides no justification of either number.