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‘Wanna” Build a Bomb? --- GAO Stings NRC

Just to prove that it wouldn’t be impossible and in fact, that it isn’t all that hard to do, GAO investigators ran a sting operation on the NRC. Posing as businessmen from West Virginia and setting up a bogus company, GAO investigators were able to get around NRC “safeguards” and secured a license to purchase 5 portable moisture-density gauges widely used in construction, that contain small amounts of cesium-137 and americium 241, two highly radioactive isotopes.

Here is a copy of the GAO Report, Actions Taken by NRC to Strengthen Its Licensing Process for Sealed Radioactive Sources Are Not Effective

As background, in 2003, GAO reported that weaknesses in NRC’s licensing program could allow terrorists to obtain radioactive materials. NRC took some steps to respond to the GAO report, including issuing guidance to license examiners. To determine whether NRC actions to address GAO recommendations were sufficient, the Subcommittee asked GAO to test the licensing program using covert investigative methods.

Given that terrorists have expressed an interest in obtaining nuclear material, the Congress and the American people expect licensing programs for these materials to be secure. However, in 2003, we reported that weaknesses in the licensing program could allow terrorists to obtain radioactive materials. We recommended that NRC close this vulnerability by modifying its licensing process. Among other things, we recommended that “NRC modify its process for issuing specific licenses to ensure that sealed radioactive sources cannot be purchased before NRC’s verification—through inspection or other means—that the materials will be used as intended.” NRC agreed with this recommendation and referred the issue to a working group composed of NRC and state representatives to coordinate NRC’s response. In December 2005, the working group delivered its recommendations to NRC senior management. In December 2006, NRC issued new guidance to agreement states and NRC regional offices meant to strengthen the radioactive materials licensing process. Although these are important steps forward, the Subcommittee remained concerned about whether, almost 6 years after September 11, 2001.

Congressional investigators set up a bogus company with only a postal box and within a month obtained a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that allowed them to buy enough radioactive material for a small "dirty bomb." In fact, the government investigators found a way that would have enabled them to purchase as many as 45 machines.

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

The damn scary part of this was that the investigators didn't have to work hard. They merely posed as businessmen from West Virginia (perhaps Mountaineers arouse less suspicion). Armed with nothing more than a P.O. box at Mail Boxes Etc. a phone and a fax, the investigators applied for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was a straightforward process that took less than a month. No in-person interviews. No NRC visits to the sham company to make sure it checked out. Only a minor background check.

Not unexpectedly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission quickly admitted the security lapses but then went on to note that using the moisture gauges to make a bomb was not easy and that it would take expertise.

In a Washington Post editorial, A Stinging Report - The Government Accountability Office tries to build a dirty bomb, an NRC commissioner pointed out the following:

● the substances involved were not nearly as dangerous as others and said that safeguards on more-harmful materials are much tighter.

● extracting the radioactive substances and building a bomb that could disperse them would still have been difficult.

● in a worst-case scenario, only about a city block would require decontamination, given the amounts in question

Considering the very recent concerns of al Qaeda terrorists penetrating our country’s security and detonating a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD), how can the NRC reassurances be taken seriously? When the GAO investigators tried to secure a similar license from the State of Maryland, however, they were deterred when Maryland regulators indicated that there would be a site inspection. From the GAO report:

GAO also attempted to obtain a license from an agreement state, but withdrew the application after state license examiners indicated they would visit the bogus company office before granting the license. An official with the licensing program told GAO that conducting a site visit is a standard required procedure before radioactive materials license applications are approved in that state.

GAO recommendations include:

● First, to avoid inadvertently allowing a malevolent individual or group to obtain a license for radioactive materials, NRC should develop improved guidance for examining NRC license applications. In developing improved screening criteria, NRC should consider whether site visits to new licensees should be mandatory. These improved screening criteria will allow NRC to provide reasonable assurance that licenses for radioactive materials will only be issued to those with legitimate uses.

● Second, NRC should conduct periodic oversight of license application examiners so that NRC will be assured that any new guidance is being appropriately applied.

● Third, NRC should explore options to prevent individuals from counterfeiting NRC licenses, especially if this allows the purchase of more radioactive materials than they are approved for under the terms of the original license.

The NRC can try to minimize the findings, but this is not a small issue. Back in December 2006, William Langewiesche, wrote an article in Atlantic on Line titled How to Get a Nuclear Bomb and cited the founding scientists of the Federation of American Scientists who said:

"Look, there is no secret. Any physicist anywhere can figure out what we did and reproduce it. There is no secret, and there is also no defense."

So, in his article he asked the question, “If you were a terrorist and a bomb was your goal, how would you go about getting one? Of course the issues here are quite different (I think). The GAO sting operation wasn’t dealing with Plutonium or Highly Enriched Uranium (as discussed in Langewiesche’s article), but cesium-137 and americium 241. The GAO sting operation shows a potential vulnerability to the acquisition of materials to make a dirty bomb (RDD), not a weapons grade bomb. At 90% enrichment, it would take 100 pounds of HEU to create a nuclear bomb. However:

● It turns out that the world is rich with fresh, safe, user-friendly HEU—a global accumulation of over a thousand metric tons (outside of our collective 30,000 nuclear warheads) that is dispersed among hundreds of sites, and separated into nicely transportable, necessarily subcritical packages.

● post-Soviet Russia inherited a sprawling state industry that had provided a full range of nuclear services, including medical science, power generation, and ship propulsion—as well as the world’s largest nuclear-weapons arsenal and, almost coincidentally, the world’s largest inventory of surplus plutonium and HEU, maybe 600 metric tons.

Once you conclude that acquiring nuclear fuel is not impossible, the issue becomes getting the materials into the country and then assembled. While not impossible, the implications of Langewiesche’s article are that a dedicated and industrious terrorist (or terrorist network) could do it. However, in light of the GAO sting operation and the continuing NRC security holes, the chances are that our attention should not be on a Jack Bauer “24” or “Jericho” scenarios, but on the danger of “dirty bombs.”

Notes

4 Comments

Wait a minute----my smoke alarm contains americium 241----ummmm!

Barry, is it that you don't give the GAO report or the issue much credence?

I'm not sure how much of the isotopes are in a portable moisture density gauge, but it seemed significant enough for them to write the report and it seems significant enough for NRC to regulate it and respond the way they did when confronted with the GAO report.

Do "we" know how much of a cocktail of isotopes would make a dirty bomb worth setting off? I don't.

Jay---It’s not a matter of credence in the GAO report, but rather the risk involved. Removing the radioactive material from industrial devices, including “smoke alarms”, for the purpose of building a dirty bomb, is waste of time. Industrial instruments, using radioactive detectors, contain extremely small quantities of a radioactive element. Coming in direct contact with this quantity does create a health risk; however, taking material from many devices and placing it in a bomb will only disperse and dilute the radioactive material such that the health risk is on the order of a being in a airplane accident. More people will be harmed from the explosion rather than from the radiation. Probably the only people to have an elevated risk of radiation poisoning are the perpetrators themselves.

Sorry for the delayed posting and response, but some important "day job stuff" got in the way. Your point taken, except the NRC safeguards and guidelines are apprarently in need of strengthening. GAO considered it important.