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For their own good
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Scary lapse in security
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published July 13, 2007
For years, congressional critics warned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that its licensing process for radioactive material was little more than an express lane for terrorists plotting to explode a "dirty bomb" on American soil. Those warnings fell on deaf ears in a government more inclined to open people's e-mail and force air travelers to throw away their mouthwash in the name of security. A new undercover congressional investigation shows just how lax those security procedures were, how vulnerable American cities still are and how far the agency needs to go to thwart this sort of attack.
In October, undercover investigators from the Government Accountability Office created two bogus companies. Neither had any assets, operations, employees, Web sites or a physical address. In February, one company applied to the NRC for a license to obtain a commonly used gauge at construction sites that measures soil and water conditions, and which contains radioactive americium-241 and cesium-137.
A second application was sent to Maryland, one of 34 states that administers the licensing for the federal government.
Maryland spotted the problem immediately. Officials called the application deficient, and sought additional information about company personnel, operations and disposal procedures. An examiner also said she would conduct a site visit to the company. Investigators withdrew the application, satisfied the state policy was "more stringent than the guidance" provided by NRC.
Applying to the federal agency was another matter. An NRC examiner called and coached these investigators on how to fix their flawed application. Investigators reduced their verbal assurances to paper, faxed it to the NRC and had a license in 28 days. Investigators scanned the license into a computer and, using publicly available software, removed the limits on how much they could buy.
Forging the document allowed the team to buy "potentially enough" nuclear material to cause serious harm. One supplier said it did not confirm with the NRC that a buyer kept within his legal limit. Even a cursory screening by the NRC - Web searches or telephone calls to government or business offices - would have "developed serious doubts about our application," auditors said. The GAO did not purchase the material; the point was to prove it could.
The GAO has raised these concerns since 2003. Its latest sting was conducted at the request of the Senate Homeland Security's investigations subcommittee, which said the findings expose "fundamental gaps" in the government's security net. In response to the undercover investigation, the NRC has announced some changes, such as requiring face-to-face meetings with new applicants and working to make licenses harder to forge.
Almost six years after the attacks of 9/11 and billions of dollars later, the gaps in homeland security are still scary.