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GAO Sting Uncovers Nuclear Security Shortcomings

A undercover sting exposed major problems with Nuclear Regulatory Commission procedures, when investigators operating a bogus company obtained a license to buy enough radioactive material to make a small "dirty bomb."

The investigators from the Government Accountability Office demonstrated that security measures put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are insufficient, according to a report scheduled for release on Thursday.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), who will ask the NRC about the incident at a Senate hearing Thursday, said the sting operation raises concerns about terrorists obtaining such material just as easily.


Nobody at the NRC checked to determine whether the company was legitimate, and an agency official even helped the investigators fill out the application form, Coleman said Wednesday.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials acknowledged that more checks are needed before licenses are issued, and the agency has tightened procedures since learning of the GAO sting.

"We've fixed the problem," said NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan on Wednesday. He said that such licenses now will require visits to the company or, in some cases, company officials will have to come to NRC offices.

The license obtained by the bogus company allowed for the purchase of up to five portable moisture density gauges widely used in construction, in which are encased small amounts of cesium-137 and americium 241, two highly radioactive isotopes.

Individually, these devices pose little threat because of the small amount of radioactive material, radiation experts said. Still, the devices require an NRC license to be purchased and must be closely safeguarded by companies that use them to avoid theft.


But the investigators from the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, found a way to purchase as many as 45 of the gauges and could have bought many more because they duplicated the NRC-issued license and removed the restrictions on the amount that could be purchased.

"With patience and the proper financial resources, we could have accumulated from other suppliers substantially more radioactive source material than what the two supplies initially agreed to ship to us," said the GAO in a report.

Coleman, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs investigations subcommittee, said the NRC "still has this good-faith assumption. The problem is there are bad-faith people out there."

He said "there is no question" they could have obtained enough radioactive material to make a dirty bomb because the GAO was able to duplicate the certificate, and no one checked on the company or whether the counterfeit license was legitimate.

A so-called dirty bomb could spread radiation by a conventional explosion but does not have a nuclear detonation. While experts believe such a bomb would not cause casualties beyond those affected by the explosion, such an attack could have significant psychological impact and have serious economy consequences because of cleanup problems.

In testimony to be presented to the Senate subcommittee, McGaffigan will acknowledge that NRC licensing officers "were allowed to exercise judgment" on whether to require company site visits when considering licenses for moisture gauges and other devices with relatively small amounts of radioactive material.

The GAO sting operation "has raised issues about the adequacy of these procedures," McGaffigan will say. The NRC is considering enhancements to assure license documents can't be easily altered.

The GAO said that investigators operated the sting from their Washington office, although they provided a postal box in West Virginia. At one point, an NRC license examiner called them to caution that the gauges are subject to special security at the construction site.

The GAO said that it contacted two suppliers of the gauges and that one "offered to provide twice as many machines as we requested and offered a discount for volume purchases." The investigators also were told that the supplier does not check with NRC to confirm the terms on the license, a copy of which was sent to the supplier along with the purchase order.

The GAO investigators never finished the deal because they didn't have the money to buy the machines - which cost about $5,000 apiece - and also didn't have a place to safely store them.

The GAO also tried to get a license from the state of Maryland, one of 34 states that the NRC has given authority to handle such licensing. Unlike the NRC, the Maryland officials said they wanted to visit the company, so the investigators withdrew their application.

From The Associated Press reports

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