As reported on the front pages of today’s Washington Post and New York Times, undercover congressional investigators successfully exploited loopholes in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing guidelines to obtain enough radiological material to build a so-called “dirty bomb.” Investigators with the Government Accounting Office posing as West Virginia businessmen sent away for a federal permit to purchase radiological materials, which they received just 28 days later. Had the NRC bothered to do any due diligence, it would have discovered that the fictional company had no office location, no website, and no employees. As noted in the Times piece, “its only asset was a postal box.”
This was not the first undercover operation to test the NRC’s control measures. A similar sting in 2005 also resulted in GAO investigators obtaining small amounts of radioactive materials, for which they created false licensing documents using samples found on the Internet. They then smuggled the material across the U.S. border at two separate locations. Customs and Border Control personnel were unable to identity the forged documents and allowed the shipments to proceed. In this year’s operation, investigators employed a similar tactic, counterfeiting the NRC license they received and removing the limit on the amount of radiological material they were allowed to purchase.
At a Senate hearing this morning, at which the GAO released its report on the operation, NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan, Jr. acknowledged continuing problems with the Commission’s licensing procedures:
In hindsight NRC missed vulnerabilities in our licensing process identified by GAO, that resulted in a seemingly legitimate licensee obtaining a license for a small amount of material, then falsifying the license and potentially aggregating a much larger amount of material…
The Commission takes this issue very seriously… GAO may have found a unique vulnerability, or there may be more left for us to discover. We intend to find out.
The truth is, whether or not NRC improves its licensing controls, those who want to obtain radiological materials—given enough time, money, and determination—will probably succeed. Just ask William Langewiesche.