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


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.

THANK YOU.

We recently wrapped up the crowdfunding campaign for our ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project, and it was a smashing success. About 10,364 readers pitched in with donations averaging $45, and together they contributed about $467,374 toward our $500,000 goal.

That's amazing. We still have donations from letters we sent in the mail coming back to us, so we're on pace to hit—if not exceed—that goal. Thank you so much. We'll keep you posted here as the project ramps up, and you can join the hundreds of readers who have alerted us to corruption to dig into.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight 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

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.