License to Irradiate: Dirty Bombs, Lazy Bureaucrats and the Very Real Threat to U.S. National Security

This article was coauthored with Noah Williams, a Research Assistant at Ploughshares Fund.

Even in the most powerful country on earth, nuclear materials are dangerously vulnerable.

In a recent exposé for the Center for Public Integrity, Patrick Malone details a covert operation by Government Accountability Office (GAO) agents who set out to "obtain the building blocks of a so-called radioactive 'dirty bomb.'" Their method? Buy all of their hazardous materials inside the United States.

As Malone notes, "The purchase of lethal radioactive materials - even modestly dangerous ones - requires a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a measure meant to keep them away from terrorists. Applicants must demonstrate they have a legitimate need and understand the NRC's safety standards, and pass an on-site inspection of their equipment and storage."

But the team's work-around was shockingly simple: they faked the licensing process.

In Dallas, Texas, they incorporated a shell company they never intended to run and rented office space in a nondescript industrial park, merely to create an address for the license application. In a spot on the form where they were supposed to identify their safety officer, they made up a name and attached a fake resume... When the state's inspector visited the fake office, he saw it was empty and had no security precautions. But members of the group assured him that once they had a license, they would be able to make the security and safety improvements. So the inspector, who always carried licenses with him, handed them one on the spot.

This is scary stuff, because once you have access to radioactive material, you don't have far to go to build a dirty bomb.

Unlike a nuclear weapon, a dirty bomb is just a conventional explosive laced with a small amount of radioactive material. It would not level a city or kill millions of people outright, but a crude bomb containing only a few ounces of radioactive material could lead to billions or even trillions of dollars in long term healthcare costs, economic damages and environmental cleanup.

As I wrote last year, "This is a true terrorist weapon that would spread throughout a city, a potent fear that exposure would cause cancer, birth defects or heavy metal poisoning over the years." Fear like that could shut down a city. Thus a dirty bomb attack in a major commercial center like the port of Los Angeles or Manhattan, that might only kill a few people in the blast, could cripple the U.S. economy.

As the former Deputy Chief of the New York Fire Department wrote in a study for the Naval Postgraduate School, "losses resulting from [a dirty bomb] attack in the area of the New York Stock Exchange could actually reach $1 trillion."

Even more concerning though, this is the second time in nine years that the GAO team has beaten the regulatory system. According to Malone's piece:

In 2007... the GAO similarly set up fake businesses, got licenses to purchase low-level radioactive material and altered them to buy larger quantities. The NRC promised 'immediate action to address the weaknesses we identified,' according to the GAO's report on that incident. The auditors' aim this time around was to see if the government had cleaned up its act, and taken steps to close some simple gateways to obtaining the ingredients for a dirty bomb. It turns out, the government had not.

This begs the question: if the situation is this bad in the United States what must it be like in the rest of the world?

Late last year, radioactive material was stolen in Iraq, and was only found - dumped near a gas station - after a months-long search. That same year, the FBI broke up a smuggling ring in Moldova that was attempting to sell nuclear materials to terrorists. Dangerous groups have made it clear that they want to get their hands on the components of a dirty bomb, and they have the opportunity to do so.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative's most recent Nuclear Security Index shows that global progress on securing radioactive materials has slowed dramatically over the past two years. According to the report, "states' approaches to nuclear security continue to vary widely, thereby creating dangerous weak links that terrorists could exploit as they seek the easiest path to weapons-usable nuclear materials."

As grim as the situation seems, there are still many common sense steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism. Sam Nunn, a former senator and the co-chairman and CEO of NTI, laid out some of these steps last year in an op-ed for The Washington Post. Most importantly, the U.S. should require greater security and accountability from organizations that work with these materials, and allow states to increase their security requirements for radiological materials beyond the standards set by the NRC.

"As it stands," Nunn argues, "even if a state wants to voluntarily increase security for its radiological sources beyond federal minimums, the NRC regulations don't allow it... One size does not fit all, however. New York City has a higher risk profile than Kansas City, Mo., or New Orleans."

The GAO has shown how easily carelessness can lead to catastrophe. Unfortunately when it comes to terrorism, there is no margin for error. The world needs to get serious about securing radioactive materials, or next time it might not be government agents who get their hands on them.