By LIZ SIDOTI
Associated Press Writer
March 27, 2006
WASHINGTON (AP) - Undercover investigators slipped radioactive
material - enough to make two small "dirty bombs" - across U.S.
borders in Texas and Washington state in a test last year of security
at American points of entry.
Radiation alarms at the unidentified sites detected the small amounts
of cesium-137, a nuclear material used in industrial gauges. But U.S.
customs agents permitted the investigators to enter the United States
because they were tricked with counterfeit documents.
The Bush administration said Monday that within 45 days it will give
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents the tools they need to
verify such documents in the future.
The Government Accountability Office's report, the subject of a Senate
hearing Tuesday, said detection equipment used by U.S. customs agents
to screen people, vehicles and cargo for radioactive substances
appeared to work as designed.
But the investigation, carried out simultaneously at both border
crossings in December 2005, also identified potential security holes
terrorists might be able to exploit to sneak nuclear materials into
the United States.
"This operation demonstrated that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is
stuck in a pre-9/11 mind-set in a post-9/11 world and must modernize
its procedures," Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said Monday in a
The NRC, in charge of overseeing nuclear reactor and nuclear substance
safety, challenged that notion.
"Security has been of prime importance for us on the materials front
and the power plant front since 9/11," commission spokesman David
McIntyre said in an interview.
The head of the Homeland Security Department's Domestic Nuclear
Detection Office, Vayl Oxford, said the substance could have been used
in a radiological weapon with limited effects.
A Senate Homeland Security subcommittee, which Coleman leads, released
details of the investigation and two GAO reports on radiation
detectors and port security before hearings on the issues this week.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, also found that
installation of radiation detectors is taking too long and costing
more money than the U.S. expected. It said the Homeland Security
Department's goal of installing 3,034 detectors by September 2009
across the United States - at border crossings, seaports, airports and
mail facilities - was "unlikely" to be met and said the government
probably will spend $342 million more than it expects.
Between October 2000 and October 2005, the GAO said, the government
spent about $286 million installing radiation monitors inside the
To test security at U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, GAO
investigators represented themselves as employees of a fake company.
When stopped, they presented counterfeit shipping papers and NRC
documents that allegedly permitted them to receive, acquire, possess
and transfer radioactive substances.
Investigators found that customs agents weren't able to check whether
a person caught with radioactive materials was permitted to possess
the materials under a government-issued license.
"Unless nuclear smugglers in possession of faked license documents
raised suspicions in some other way, CBP officers could follow agency
guidelines yet unwittingly allow them to enter the country with their
illegal nuclear cargo," a report said. It described this problem as "a
significant gap" in the nation's safety procedures.
Jayson Ahern, the assistant customs commissioner for field operations,
said a system for customs agents to confirm the authenticity of
government licenses will be in place within 45 days. Ahern noted the
radiation detectors had sounded alarms.
"We're pleased when a test like this is able to demonstrate the
efficacy of our technology," Ahern said.
False radiation alarms are common - sometimes occurring more than 100
times a day - although the GAO said inspectors generally do a good job
distinguishing nuisance alarms from actual ones. False alarms can be
caused by ceramics, fertilizers, bananas and even patients who have
recently undergone some types of medical procedures.
At one port - which investigators did not identify - a director
frustrated over false alarms was worried that backed-up trains might
block the entrance to a nearby military base until an alarm was
checked out. The director's solution: simply turn off the radiation
Associated Press writer Ted Bridis contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Customs and Border Protection: http://www.cbp.gov/
Government Accountability Office: http://www.gao.gov/
InfoSec News v2.0 - Coming Soon!