Sting Uncovers Gaps in Government Oversight of Dirty Bomb Components

Pretending to be West Virginia businessmen, the undercover agents applied for and obtained a license from the NRC to buy radioactive material. In the report issued by the General Accounting Office, the NRC issued the license with little scrutiny of the front company’s legitimacy or intent.

The Senate held a hearing Thursday on the report’s findings.

The agents used only a post office box, along with a phone number and fax machine, to apply for the license — all “without leaving their desks,” according to the report.

No representative from the NRC requested a face-to-face interview with the company; one commission employee even helped fill out the application for the license. In one incident mentioned in the report, an NRC employee requested to speak with the fake businessman’s boss, only to have the investigator place the call on hold for two minutes and answer the phone again as the fake boss.

Once they received the license allowing them to purchase a limited amount — five “portable moisture density gauges” of radioactive material, the investigators counterfeited copies of the license, removing those limits.

With no restrictions, the agents were able to order 45 gauges of highly radioactive isotopes — enough to build a dirty bomb to contaminate an entire city block — and could have ordered many more. Before the materials could be delivered, the GAO investigators cancelled their orders and decided they had enough evidence to sufficiently report on the loopholes in the NRC’s security procedures.

Dirty bombs use conventional explosive devices to spread radioactive material, so while the casualties from such an event would be relatively low, the dispersed radiation would present a lingering threat to the area.

According to Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who requested the investigations, “the economic and psychological effects of a dirty bomb detonating on American soil would be devastating.”

The latest investigation was the most recent in a series of operations designed to test the nation’s vulnerabilities with regards to a nuclear attack. In 2003, the agency advised that the NRC confirm the legitimacy of applicants for licenses to purchase radioactive material. In 2006, it recommended that the commission prevent the licenses from being forged.

In response to the report, NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. said he has already begun to fix the problems by implementing a requirement of face-to-face meetings for all licensing requests. He also recognized that the potential for counterfeiting license remains a serious hurdle.

Coleman called the NRC’s remedies “baby steps” and “insufficient.”

The investigators were stopped in their sting operation at one point, however. Unlike West Virginia, Maryland is one of 34 states that conducts its own licensing, apart from the NRC. Maryland officials told the fake company employees that state inspectors would have to visit their facilities as part of a seven-month process.