A new report by a U.S. government watchdog agency says the U.S. Department of Energy has made only limited progress in securing many of the most dangerous sources of radiological material in the former Soviet Union, leaving them vulnerable to terrorists. The report was the focus of a congressional hearing Tuesday, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), at the request of Congress, set up a program to secure radiological material to prevent terrorists from obtaining such material for so-called dirty bombs.
When the program began in 2002, it initially focused on security sources in countries of the former Soviet Union because DOE. officials believed the region had the greatest number of vulnerable sources. A year later, the program expanded to include sources worldwide.
Andrew Bieniawski, associate deputy administrator of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, told a Senate panel that $120 million has been spent on the effort so far, and that the program has produced results:
"Since the inception of our program in 2002, the Department of Energy's International Radiological Threat Reduction Program has completed security upgrades at more than 500 sites in over 40 countries around the world," said Andrew Bieniawski.
But a new report by the U.S. General Accountability Office, GAO finds that many of the most dangerous sources of radiological material still remain unsecured.
Eugene Aloise, director of nuclear and nonproliferation issues at the GAO, presented the findings to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee:
"Some of the highest risk and dangerous sources remain unsecured," said Eugene Aloise. "Specifically, 16 of 20 nuclear waste storage sites across Russia and Ukraine remain unsecured, and more than 700 portable generators, possibly containing the largest unsecured quantity of radioactivity in the world, remain operational or abandoned in Russia, and are vulnerable to theft or misuse."
Aloise said the GAO found that the Department of Energy has focused most of its efforts on securing small sources of radioactive materials in Russia and elsewhere, like those found in medical equipment stored in doctors' offices.
"The sources in these medical facilities pose much less of a threat to our national security interests than higher priority sources, such as the portable generators and waste storage facilities," he said. "However, as of September 30th of last year, almost 70 percent of all sites DOE secured were medical facilities."
Lawmakers expressed concern that more significant sources of radiological material have been left vulnerable to theft.
The panel's chairman, Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency, has tracked the loss of radioactive materials worldwide:
"The IAEA has documented 516 confirmed cases of trafficking or loss of highly radioactive sources," said Senator Akaka.
The top Republican on the panel, Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, expressed concern about the possibility of terrorists using stolen radioactive materials to build a dirty bomb:
"A radiological dirty bomb could result in fatalities and serious health consequences as well as significant economic, psychological and social disruption associated with the evacuation and subsequent clean-up of the contaminated areas," he said.
The GAO report criticized the Department of Energy for reducing its budget for the radiological threat reduction program.
The agency is seeking $6 million for the effort next year. But deputy administrator Andrew Bieniawski says the Bush administration is asking for an additional $20 million in a budget supplemental request that will be used to secure another 85 vulnerable radiological sources worldwide.