"By using the name of a bogus business that existed only on paper, GAO investigators were able to obtain a genuine radioactive materials license from NRC." This is not how a heartening homeland-security story begins.
The short version: It was frighteningly easy for federal investigators posing as West Virginia businessmen to obtain authorization to buy two types of radioactive material which, gathered in sufficient quantities with the right technical know-how, can be used to construct a dirty bomb. Once they had the license, the investigators got price quotes and discount offers from commercial and industrial suppliers. "[W]ith patience and the proper financial resources, we could have accumulated from other suppliers substantially more radioactive source material than what the two suppliers initially agreed to ship us," the Government Accountability Office concluded this week in a study which shocks.
NRC stands for Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the North Bethesda-based federal overseer of nuclear energy and nuclear safety. A few phone calls and altered documents were the method. In total, it took about four weeks for the phony businessmen to obtain the license. There was no site visit and obviously no effective background check on the requesters. The material in question is Americium-241 and Cesium-137, two man-made radionuclides with a range of industrial and medical applications. As Sen. Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican who requested the study, put things: "It was as easy to get these licenses as it is to get a DVD from Netflix."
Once the license arrived, the investigators altered the documents to increase the small amounts of radiological material requested to an unlimited amount. They faxed the forged document to two suppliers with a request for price quotes for machines containing the two radiological compounds. They received offers to purchase the machines from both. "One of these suppliers offered to provide twice as many machines as we requested and offered a discount for volume purchases."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission suspended licensing in early June, when the GAO notified it of the findings, and is undertaking a review of its procedures which we expect to be very extensive.
How could this happen? For starters, the NRC's own procedures going into February 2007 when the GAO investigation took place were shockingly scanty. "According to NRC guidance finalized in November 2006 and sent to agreement states in December 2006"—an agreement state is one authorized to issue licenses itself—"both NRC and agreement state license examiners should consider 12 screening criteria to verify that radioactive materials will be used as intended by a new applicant." Two of the criteria are checking the business' registration with state agencies, and to conduct a simple Internet search, both to see whether the business actually exists. Evidently neither were undertaken in this case.
But bumbling bureaucracy is not where this story ends. It ends with the Bush administration, which bears ultimate responsibility for the agency's actions and inactions, and has been accused, credibly, of shortchanging the NRC budget. Licensing problems are nothing new for the NRC — witness the struggle over nuclear power-plant licensing. As the AP summarized it in January: "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's ability to hire enough workers to manage the expected onslaught of nuclear reactor applications will be crippled without increased funding."
We expect a full accounting from the administration of the coming improvements.