Wed, Nov 12, 2003 - Page 7 News List

US fails to track own nuclear material

SIGNIFICANT RISK Government investigators have found that there is sufficient untraced radioactive material inside the US for terrorists to make a dirty bomb


US government investigators have documented 1,300 cases of lost, stolen or abandoned radioactive material inside the US over the past five years and have concluded there is a significant risk that terrorists could cobble enough together for a dirty bomb.

Studies by the Energy Department's Los Alamos laboratory and the General Accounting Office (GAO) found significant holes in the nation's security net that could take years to close, even after improvements by regulators since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The world of radiological sources developed prior to recent concerns about terrorism, and many of the sources are either unsecured or provided, at best, with an industrial level of security," the Los Alamos lab concluded two months ago in a report.

The report concludes that the threat of a so-called dirty bomb that could disperse radiological materials across a wide area "appears to be very significant, and there is no shortage of radioactive materials that could be used." Security improvements under way "are unlikely to significantly alter the global risk picture for a few years," it added.

The FBI repeatedly has warned law enforcement over the past year that al-Qaeda was interested in obtaining radiological materials and creating a dispersal bomb, most recently after authorities received an uncorroborated report a few weeks ago that al-Qaeda might be seeking material from a Canadian source.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spokeswoman Beth Hayden said the agency recognizes the potential dangers of such materials and al-Qaeda's interest in them -- "there are millions of sources," she said. But she added most of the 1,300 lost radiological sources were subsequently recovered and the public should keep the threat in perspective.

"The ones that have been lost and not recovered, I'm told, if you put them all together, it would not add up to one highly radioactive source," Hayden said. "These are low-level sources."

The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee says the studies show security efforts fall short of what is needed.

"Even though for years we have known of the threat that terrorists would use `dirty bombs' to attack the US, I am alarmed at the government's inadequate response to this very real threat. The economic and health costs of such an event would be staggering. It appears we don't even know how much material exists that could be used for such weapons or even where it is being kept," Republican congressman Jim Turner said.

The Los Alamos analysis specifically cited concerns about the transportation of large shipments of radioactive cobalt from industrial sites, as well as lax security at hospitals that use radiological devices to treat and diagnose patients.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, detailed how terrorists could abuse the legal method for obtaining radiological sources because the NRC takes as long as a year to inspect facilities after it mails them a license for such materials.

"Because the process assumes that the applicant is acting in good faith and it can take the NRC as along as 12 months before conducting an inspection, it is possible that sealed sources can be obtained for malicious intent," the GAO told the Senate recently.

NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. said the GAO concerns were overstated, focusing on materials with extremely low-level radioactivity. He said his agency has been taking steps for months to more securely ship and store high-risk sources.

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