The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday appeared before a Senate subcommittee.

Edward McGaffigan had some explaining to do. A report released this week revealed that undercover agents from the Government Accountability Office set up a sham company and received a license from the NRC. With the license they arranged to buy dozens of moisture density gauges, machines that contain small amounts of radioactive isotopes like americium. Altogether, the officials say they got enough radioactive material to build a so-called dirty bomb.

But McGaffigan told lawmakers it's quite a leap from obtaining that material to actually producing a dirty bomb, which he doubted al-Qaida could do without help. That reassurance prompted an exchange with Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman.

Mr. EDWARD McGAFFIGAN (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): If states start aiding al-Qaida in designing...

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): I will tell you today, Mr. Commissioner, that there are states aiding al-Qaida...

Mr. McGAFFIGAN: No, I understand...

Sen. COLEMAN: They know that in Iraq. So let's assume it here.

Mr. McGAFFIGAN: If there are states that do that, then - and they use americium, which has a very low - it's very hard to detect with the detectors we have at our borders, that's a problem.

MONTAGNE: The NRC's Edward McGaffigan did say that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will do a better job of investigating companies that want to buy radioactive material.

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