Want a Dirty Bomb? Just Seal, Stamp, and Send…

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


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.

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate