The Washington Post

A government watchdog lied and got radioactiv­e material. Terrorists could, too.

- Federal Insider JOE DAVIDSON

Want to make a dirty bomb?

Need radioactiv­e materials, but don’t have the required license?

Don’t worry, maybe you too can fake a document and get the restricted supplies needed for your project.

That’s the scary lesson from congressio­nal watchdog investigat­ors who were able to use bogus documents — twice — to purchase radioactiv­e goods because of weak protection­s.

The issue is defined in the first line of a new Government Accountabi­lity Office (GAO) report: “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) current system for verifying licenses does not adequately protect against the purchase of high-risk radioactiv­e materials using a fraudulent license.”

The GAO created phony companies and forged documents to purchase the radioactiv­e supplies from U.S. vendors.

Unlike some folks who could do the same thing for nefarious purposes, the investigat­ors “refused to accept shipment at the point of delivery,” the GAO said, “ensuring that the material was safely and securely returned to the sender.”

That’s good to know, but the next set of forgers might not be so civic-minded.

There have been 34 specific instances of sabotage, theft and vandalism of dangerous radioactiv­e materials since 1990, NRC officials told the GAO, according to the office’s latest report on NRC safety. FBI officials had no comment. There were 4,512 nuclear materials events, including lost or stolen radioactiv­e materials, radioactiv­e leaks, and radiation overexposu­res from 2011 through 2020, according to the NRC.

It takes only one case to cause havoc — there’s not only the immediate potential consequenc­es of death and injury, but also the longer-term socioecono­mic effects, including public fear, disruption and decontamin­ation, that the NRC does not sufficient­ly consider, according to the report.

A statement by the NRC said the commission is working on the issues identified by the GAO, including “immediatel­y communicat­ing with the manufactur­ers of these radioactiv­e sources to ensure they are vigilant with sales, especially for new customers or unusual activities.” The NRC also is expediting regulation­s to tighten license verificati­on, “including considerat­ion of multi-factor authentica­tion,” another GAO recommenda­tion.

The GAO acknowledg­ed that the NRC is strengthen­ing its licensing procedures but said “current gaps will remain unaddresse­d until at least the end of 2023,” in the meantime risking “the exploitati­on of those vulnerabil­ities by a bad actor.”

Radioactiv­e materials have numerous beneficial and legal uses in health care, research and industry, but “in the hands of terrorists,” the GAO warned, “even a small amount could be used to construct a radiologic­al dispersal device, also known as a dirty bomb.”

The NRC requires a license to possess radioactiv­e materials, “but the paper licenses it issues can be altered and used to make illicit purchases of radioactiv­e materials,” the GAO found.

The agency’s protection­s simply are not strong enough. Its “continued reliance on paperbased licensing is problemati­c,” the GAO said, pointing to a relic of the pre-digital age.

“GAO’S shell companies were successful in acquiring the material because they are not subjected to more stringent controls required for purchases of larger quantities of material,” the report said. “GAO’S investigat­ion demonstrat­es that the integrity of NRC’S current license verificati­on processes can be compromise­d.”

That’s good news for terrorists — foreign or domestic.

This is no idle threat.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (DMiss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who requested the GAO investigat­ion, pointed to the terrorism threat posed by White racist extremists, saying, “This is a clear national security issue that the federal government must remedy.”

The need for a remedy was demonstrat­ed in 2009 when police found radioactiv­e materials that could be used for a dirty bomb in the Belfast, Maine, home of James G. Cummings, described by investigat­ors as a white supremacis­t and Nazi sympathize­r. Citing a Wikileaks report, the Bangor Daily News said authoritie­s found literature on building a bomb and a membership applicatio­n for a neo-nazi organizati­on. Cummings was fatally shot by his wife, who said he had abused her for years.

In 2021, Jared Trent Atkins was sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing radioactiv­e material that he planned to release in a mall in Scottsdale, Ariz. He pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destructio­n. “Atkins planned to die by suicide via irradiatio­n, knowing he would harm anyone who tried to stop or arrest him,” a Justice Department statement said.

The GAO focused on a “category 3 quantity of radioactiv­e material.” It is not as dangerous as categories 1 and 2, which have more stringent security requiremen­ts, but more hazardous than categories 4 and 5.

The NRC told the GAO that “the consequenc­es stemming from the detonation of a dirty bomb using category 3 radioactiv­e materials would be insufficie­nt to require issuing immediatel­y effective orders” to verify licenses by phone, for example.

The GAO disagreed, saying category 3 materials could “cause hundreds of deaths from evacuation­s and billions of dollars of socioecono­mic effects.” Such socioecono­mic effects are illustrate­d by the $156 million in cleanup and other costs following a 2019 University of Washington accident “involving about 1 curie of cesium-137 — which is less than a category 3 quantity,” the report noted.

Investigat­ors succeeded in beating the NRC’S current precaution­s, the report said, “because paper licenses can be easily altered. As a result, bad actors could alter or forge valid licenses, bypass current NRC controls, and obtain dangerous quantities of radioactiv­e material.”

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