Security measures flunk ‘dirty bomb’ test

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Undercover federal investigators successfully bought enough radioactive material to make “dirty bombs” and transported it across U.S. borders using fake documentation, a congressional subcommittee heard recently. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also learned March 28 from the Government Accountability Office that less than 40 percent of maritime containers entering the United States are screened for radiation.

The investigators bought radioactive material and containers from a commercial source over the phone. An “employee” of the fake company explained that it would be used to calibrate personal radiation detectors. The seller obligingly mailed the radioactive material to the provided address in Washington, D.C. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require suppliers to determine whether the buyer has a legitimate use for the radioactive material, a measure the GAO recommended in 2003. Nor are suppliers required to ask the buyer to produce an NRC document when selling small amounts of the material.

GAO investigators found NRC documents on the Internet, along with examples of necessary documentation. A graphic artist created a logo for a fictitious company and produced a fake bill of lading. On Dec. 14, undercover agents made simultaneous trips into the United States from Canada and Mexico with the radioactive material in the trunks of their rental cars. The radiation portal monitors properly alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors to the presence of radioactive material, and the inspectors checked the investigators’ vehicles properly. However, the inspectors didn’t question the agents’ fake documents.

“The reality is that it is easier to buy low-grade radioactive material for a dirty bomb than it is to buy cold medicine that has been restricted due to the meth epidemic,” said Subcommittee Chairman Norm Coleman, R-Minn. The NRC, in particular, needs to adjust its rules to a post-Sept. 11 world, Coleman said. The hearing also revealed that the Department of Homeland Security’s deployment of portal monitors is behind schedule and likely will cost $342 million more than expected.