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Dirty bombIn dirty bomb prevention, Texas fails a crucial test

By Patrick Malone

Published 5 August 2016

The clandestine group’s goal was clear: Obtain the building blocks of a radioactive “dirty bomb” — capable of poisoning a major city for a year or more — by openly purchasing the raw ingredients from authorized sellers inside the United States. It should have been hard. The purchase of lethal radioactive materials — even modestly dangerous ones — requires a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a measure meant to keep them away from terrorists. But a team of undercover bureaucrats with the investigative arm of Congress discovered that getting a license and then ordering enough materials to make a dirty bomb was strikingly simple.

The clandestine group’s goal was clear: Obtain the building blocks of a radioactive “dirty bomb” — capable of poisoning a major city for a year or more — by openly purchasing the raw ingredients from authorized sellers inside the United States.

It should have been hard. The purchase of lethal radioactive materials — even modestly dangerous ones — requires a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 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 this secret group of fewer than ten people — formed in April 2014 in North Dakota, Texas, and Michigan — discovered that getting a license and then ordering enough materials to make a dirty bomb was strikingly simple in one of their three tries. Sellers were preparing shipments that together were enough to poison a city center when the operation was shut down.

The team’s members could have been anyone — a terrorist outfit, emissaries of a rival government, domestic extremists. In fact, they were undercover bureaucrats with the investigative arm of Congress. And they had pulled off the same stunt nine years before. Their fresh success has set off new alarms among some lawmakers and officials in Washington about risks that terrorists inside the United States could undertake a dirty bomb attack.

Here’s how they did it: In Dallas, 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 résumé. They claimed to need the material to power an industrial gauge used in oil and gas exploration.

Last year, their application was sent not to Washington but to Texas regulators, who had been deputized by the NRC to grant licenses without federal review. 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.