Investigators obtained nuclear license with almost no scrutiny
GAO sting will be subject of congressional hearing today
By Kathleen Day
THE WASHINGTON POST
Thursday, July 12, 2007
WASHINGTON â€” Undercover congressional investigators posing as West
Virginia businessmen obtained a license, with almost no scrutiny from
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that enabled them to buy enough
radioactive material from U.S. suppliers to build a “dirty bomb,” a
new government report says.
The investigators obtained the license within 28 days from officials
at the commission, the federal agency that, in addition to regulating
nuclear power plants, oversees radioactive materials used in health
care and industry, the report by the Government Accountability Office
Nuclear agency officials approved the request with a minimal
background check that included no face-to-face interview or visit to
the purported company to ensure that it existed and complied with
safety rules, the report says.
Using a post-office box at Mail Boxes Etc., a telephone and a fax
machine, the undercover men from the GAO obtained the license “without
ever leaving their desks,” the report says.
After counterfeiting copies of the license, the agents ordered
portable moisture density gauges, which contain radioactive material
and are used at construction sites to analyze soil, water and pavement.
The investigators ordered 45 gauges, enough to build a bomb with
enough radioactive material to qualify as a level-3 threat on the
International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the
The investigators never took possession of the material, in part
because they lacked the means to handle it safely.
A dirty bomb is designed to use conventional explosives to cause
injury to people nearby while causing a long-lasting threat by
contaminating a wider area with radioactive material.
The GAO undertook the sting operation at the request of Norm Coleman,
R-Minn., the top minority member of the Senate permanent subcommittee
on investigations, which since 2003 has been examining security gaps
at the nuclear agency and other federal agencies that could leave the
country vulnerable to biological or nuclear attack.
The report will be the subject of subcommittee hearings today. It is
the latest of several government reports following the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks to warn of serious security gaps in nuclear
commission licensing procedures.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief Edward McGaffigan Jr. said
Wednesday that the agency has had to allocate finite resources to what
it thinks are the biggest threats to public safety. He said terrorists
have looked for relatively simple ways to cause massive death and damage.
Devices such as the moisture gauges pose a relatively low-level risk,
he said, because they require vast amounts of work to fashion into a
After the GAO presented the nuclear agency with the results of its
operation, agency officials on June 1 ordered an immediate halt in new
licenses to handle radiation risks of 3 or lower.
The agency lifted the ban two weeks later after modifying its
procedures to require either a face-to-face meeting or a site visit,
McGaffigan said, something already required before issuing licenses to
handle material with risk levels of 1 and 2.