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US Nuclear Agency Faulted for Security Gaps

U.S. congressional investigators working undercover say they have obtained a license to buy enough radioactive material for a radiological bomb, without much scrutiny from federal regulators. The investigators presented a Senate panel Thursday with a report concluding that U.S. security measures remain inadequate despite new government efforts aimed at preventing radioactive material from falling into the hands of terrorists. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican and member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has long been concerned about the danger of terrorists acquiring radioactive material for a bomb that could be set off in an American city.

"The impact of such an attack, even a simple and small dirty bomb could be a nightmare scenario," he said. "The issue here is not the amount of lives that would be lost in the explosion itself, or even the amount of radiological material. It is the psychological and the economic impact of having radiological material thrown about, perhaps in a place like Wall Street or in the halls of Congress."

Investigators for the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, say they had little trouble obtaining a license to buy radioactive material.

"Using a bogus business and documents, along with a little social engineering, we were able to obtain a genuine NRC radioactive materials' license," said Gregory Kutz, a managing director at the GAO.

Kutz says the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nuclear industry and nuclear material safety issues, issued a license to the fake company set up by investigators 28 days after a request was made, without trying to visit the firm or interviewing anyone from the company in person. The NRC mailed the license to the bogus company's headquarters, which was a West Virginia post office box.

The undercover agents made counterfeit copies of the license, removing restrictions on how much they were allowed to buy and then ordered enough radiological materials to build a dirty bomb. They ordered dozens of portable moisture density gauges, which are used to assess soil and pavement in building highways - and which contain radioactive materials.

It was at that point that investigators concluded they had enough evidence, and they called off the ruse before the equipment was shipped.

Edward McGaffigan, an NRC commissioner, says the GAO investigation prompted his agency to improve its safeguards.

"The GAO did find a flaw in our system, and as soon as we understood it, we dealt with it," he said.

Among the improvements, the agency now requires members of its staff to visit any company that it is not familiar with before approving a license application.

The GAO's Kutz welcomes the changes, but says more needs to be done to prevent counterfeiting of documents.

"Even if you do the site visit, suppliers who receive a faxed copy of an NRC license that is counterfeited still today could possibly end up shipping someone with malicious intent," he said. "So the counterfeiting element needs to be dealt with."

The NRC hopes to establish an Internet-based licensing system by 2009 that would help eliminate counterfeiting of documents.