'Dirty Bomb' Sting Finds a Hole in Security

Undercover investigators obtained a license to buy enough radioactive material to build a "dirty bomb," amid little scrutiny from federal regulators, according to a government report obtained Wednesday. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued the license to a fake company in just 28 days, with only a cursory review, the Government Accountability Office says.

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Today, congressional investigators reported the results of an unusual sting operation. Working undercover, they set up a fake company and obtained a license for purchasing radioactive materials, the kind that could be used by terrorists in the dirty bomb.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: You can buy smoke detectors from the supermarket that have small radioactive sources inside them. But to buy more powerful sources, you need a license from U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Some members of Congress wanted to see how hard that would be, so they asked investigators with the Government Accountability Office to go undercover.

Mr. GREGORY KUTZ (Managing Director, Forensic Audits and Special Investigations, U.S. Government Accountability Office): Let me walk you through what we did and what we found.

KESTENBAUM: This is Gregory Kutz with the GAO. He testified before a Senate Subcommittee on Homeland Security today. He said the GAO set up a fake construction company that existed only on paper - no building, no Web site and it had no problem getting a radioactive materials license.

Mr. KUTZ: Twenty-eight days after making our application, we received our NRC license.

KESTENBAUM: The license did limit the amount of radioactive material that could be purchased. But fixing that part was easy. They scanned the license into a computer and made some changes.

Mr. KUTZ: We altered our genuine NRC license to allow for the purchase of unlimited quantities of radioactive materials. We then faxed this altered license to two suppliers who committed to shipping us numerous machines containing radioactive materials.

KESTENBAUM: The machines were moisture density gauges - construction companies use them to test roads and pavement. Investigators asked to buy 20 of these from one company. And the company offered instead to sell them 40.

Mr. KUTZ: What they cared about the most from us was doing a credit check and whether we could actually pay for what we wanted to buy. I mean, they assumed that since we have this license that it was genuine and they didn't have any means to determine that it wasn't.

KESTENBAUM: In the end, Kutz says, they could have purchased a category three level amount of radioactive material. He later told NPR he thought it would have been enough to make a dirty bomb that could contaminate several city blocks, prompting evacuations and probably panic.

The committee also heard from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Unidentified Man: Commissioner McGaffigan, I'm going to ask you to rise and take an oath, please.

KESTENBAUM: Edward McGaffigan is one of five commissioners at the NRC.

Commissioner EDWARD McGAFFIGAN (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): If you did find a flaw in our system and we - as soon we understood it, dealt with it.

KESTENBAUM: The NRC said that in the future, it will actually go to visit companies applying for this kind of license to make sure the businesses actually exist. To stop someone from forging a paper license, the NRC is considering setting up an online database. But McGaffigan stressed that the radioactive sources in the sting operation were not the big ones, the kinds used in some hospitals or food radiators.

Commissioner McGAFFIGAN: For high-risk sources, this thing would not work. You would be caught instantly. And you would have been caught instantly a long time ago. We give those people very, very tight scrutiny.

KESTENBAUM: McGaffigan said that what really concerned him was that in this sting operation, the companies selling the moisture density gauges didn't notice something was fishy.

Commissioner McGAFFIGAN: Instead of getting excited about, oh, my God, somebody is buying a quarter million dollars, it must be the biggest firm that somehow just landed on the Earth, they might have asked the question or two. They might have called back to us. We want to know about transactions. Please call us.

KESTENBAUM: The order did raise a red flag with one company. NPR spoke with George Marshall at Troxler Labs. Marshall said Troxler is the largest supplier of these devices. He said his company refused to fill the order. He said his company did not notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He said it was not required to.

The GAO also described a second sting operation that was not successful. It approached the state of Maryland for a radioactive materials license, the state issues its own. But a Maryland official called to say a sight visit would be required. The investigator's fake company didn't have a building so the sting operation ended there.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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