The Center for Public Integrity has published a troubling report detailing the activity of an undercover group from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) who managed to procure enough low-level radioactive material to create a “dirty bomb”.
A dirty bomb, or a bomb that propels radioactive materials in the air with help from a conventional explosive charge, requires radioactive material that can only be obtained via licence from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The commission only allow sales of the materials to groups that can prove a legitimate need for them, as well as the capacity to keep them safe.
In theory, these materials are regulated and should be hard to get, but as the covert group proved, anyone with sufficient money and will can obtain the potentially devastating materials.
The group set about their plan by renting office space in Dallas, Texas, where a robust fracking industry regularly requires radioactive materials for gauges needed in their search for gas and oil deposits.
“I wouldn’t call what we did very sophisticated,” Ned Woodward, leader of the GAO plot to expose weaknesses in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s practices.
Indeed their tactics were not sophisticated, but were very bold. The group, with a real address for a phony business, simply made up a security officer, resume and all. Once set up, the group submitted a request to buy radioactive materials for an industrial gauge, which is common practice in fracking country.
So common in fact is this process, that the NRC has deputized Texas to issue licenses to buy radioactive materials without federal review.
So an inspector came out to the phony, empty office, but instead of turning the group down for having no security in place, or arousing suspicion about the obvious potential that the business was a shell company, he issued a licence on the spot for a small amount of radioactive material.
The quantity of this material wouldn’t suffice to make a dirty bomb, but the NRC doesn’t keep these licenses in reliable databases, so the group simply copied the licence, wrote in larger amounts, and placed a new order for double the amount of radioactive material.
“There was nothing we had done to improve that site to make it appear as if it were an ongoing business,” said Woodward.
This fraud could have been repeated indefinitely, according to David Trimble, director of Natural Resources and Environment at the GAO. “
“It’s a back door,” said Trimble. “We walked through it and we showed the door was still open. We could have kept doing it. If you can forge [a licence] once, there’s no reason you can’t forge it again and again.”
While a dirty bomb isn’t much deadlier than a comparable explosive without the radioactive element, it would create a biological hazard zone that could take years to clean up. If detonated in a city center or busy port, the aftermath of a dirty bomb would cost billions, shut down an area, and subject an unlucky few to the agonizing complications of having been exposed to radiation.
The report exposes a disturbing weakness in the US’s regulation of these materials. When radioactive material can so readily be obtained in the US, there is no need for bad actors to risk communicating and coordinating with foreign actors.
The covert group actually “designed our test to fail,” one GAO official said. The purposefully did very little to appear legitimate, and essentially obtained their licence on promises that in the future they’d put better safety measures in place.
In a defensive post on the GAO’s official blog, the NRC largely placed the blame on the licensing agents in Texas, also mentioning that only one of the GAO covert group’s attempts had been successful.
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