A government watchdog said the three agencies charged with securing radiological materials that can be used to make dirty bombs need to collaborate more closely.
David Trimble, natural resources and environment director for the Government Accountability Office, said the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission need to step up their cooperation to decrease the threat of radiological dispersal devices, or “dirty bombs.” Recent GAO audits have shown faults in the agencies’ systems and security programs because of a lack of communication among them.
“Although DHS, NNSA and NRC have an interagency mechanism for collaborating on, among other things, radiological security, they were not always doing so effectively,” Trimble said at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.
Since GAO’s last audit, the administration has worked to enhance its radiological security through the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which has focused heavily on the development of detection devices and on adequately trained response forces to better shield vulnerable sources, said Anne Harrington, nuclear defense administrator at the NNSA.
Failing to guard vulnerable sources puts them at a greater risk of being stolen for use as dirty bombs, which are radioactive materials mixed with conventional explosives. When successfully detonated, radiation disperses and citizens are exposed to harmful contaminants, causing sickness or possible death.
Harrington cited the agency’s recent efforts to prevent loss of radiological materials. He estimated that the initiative has provided additional security enhancements to more than half the buildings and worksites in urban areas containing such material around the country.
Approximately 1,700 of the 3,000 urban buildings that house high-risk radiological materials have undergone major security reconstruction under the program, according to NNSA reports.
Still, the GAO draft May 2014 report “Security of U.S. Radiological Sources” included a recommendation to the NNSA and the other agencies to “enhance collaboration, especially in the development and implementation of new technologies.”
Trimble said the agencies should join forces to develop new technologies to better safeguard easily accessible mobile sources. Because some radiological materials are transportable, they are more susceptible to loss or theft, whether by workers themselves or other individuals attempting to gain access to the sources.
GAO audits have reported instances where radiography cameras were stolen from parked trucks in hotel lots, and also cases in which individuals have impersonated safety and security inspectors to enter worksites holding radioactive materials.
Huban Gowadia, director of DHS’ Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, has looked to minimize these cases of stolen mobile materials with a “three-triad plan.” It pays special attention to intelligence and information exchange, enhanced law enforcement and proper training and the development of more reliable technology. Its elements work together to reduce nuclear and radiological terrorism, Gowadia said.
Twenty-nine states have signed up for the plan. This has raised awareness and prompted them to develop formal radiological and nuclear detection programs for transportable materials, he said. Gowadia was optimistic that it will extend to all 50 states by the end of fiscal year 2015.
However, stationary sources — such as research plants, storage warehouses and other facilities that do not regularly transport radioactive materials — are just as susceptible to loss or theft as mobile sources. Though the agencies have worked to improve security through fingerprinting, cameras and alarms, insider threats continue to challenge government attempts to increase protection of radiological materials, he said.
Mark Satorius, executive director of the NRC, said the agency would improve licensing regulations, perform more frequent background checks and regularly fingerprint personnel who would have access to vulnerable sources.Photo Credit: Thinkstock