Bush administration officials appeared before a Senate panel Thursday to outline efforts to prevent terrorists from smuggling nuclear weapons or material for such devices into the United States.
At a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, quoted statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency saying that 662 confirmed cases of smuggled nuclear and radiological materials were reported between 1993 and 2004.
Of those, 21 cases involved material that could be used in a nuclear weapon and 400 involved material that could be used in a radiological device, known as a dirty bomb.
He expressed concern about the potential for a terrorist to smuggle nuclear weapons or weapons-grade material into this country. "If certain terrorist groups were able to get their hands on a device which they could detonate, that they would try to find a way to do it. If we all agree to that, then it would be unthinkable for us not to do everything we could within reason to obviate that threat," he said.
Deputy Energy Undersecretary for Counterterrorism Steven Aoki said responding to such a threat is a challenge. "This is a hard problem. Detecting a clandestinely transported nuclear weapon or the materials to build one is inherently difficult. The radiation signature emitted by fissile materials is relatively weak and can be further attenuated by shielding," he said.
But Aoki says he believes the problem can be successfully addressed, particularly at seaports and border crossings, where materials entering the country can be routinely inspected.
Administration officials said plans are under way to establish radiological detection systems at ports and border crossings, and provide the U.S. Coast Guard with radiation detection systems to allow that agency to interdict radiological materials offshore.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has been conducting studies about various threats of weapons of mass destruction to determine how to locate and neutralize them. "We have been making steady progress in expanding our capabilities to combat w.m.d. and in building interagency partnerships," said Peter Nanos, the agency's associate director for research and development.
Other officials expressed concern about congressional proposals to cut funding for government programs aimed at combating nuclear smuggling in an effort to reduce the federal budget deficit.
A Senate Appropriations subcommittee has proposed cutting the Homeland Security Department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office by 30 percent.
The office's director, Vayl Oxford, urged lawmakers to restore the cuts, saying the funding shortfall will impede on the department's ability to work with major cities to help them establish nuclear detection systems.