DIRTY BOMBSRisks of a Dirty Bomb Attack Are Increasing

Published 11 April 2022

In a new factsheet, the GAO says that the risks of a dirty bomb attack are increasing and the consequences could be devastating.

In a new factsheet, the GAO says that the risks of a dirty bomb attack are increasing and the consequences could be devastating.

GAO reported in 2019 that a dirty bomb using radioactive materials could trigger mass evacuations and have socioeconomic costs of billions of dollars. For example, an accident at a hospital in 2019 involving a small quantity of radioactive materials resulted in clean-up and other costs of $150 million for that building alone.

Numerous incidents indicate weaknesses in controls over radioactive materials that could be used in a dirty bomb. Recent security threats have raised concerns that radioactive materials could be stolen and used in a domestic attack.

For example, in April 2019, a technician was arrested after stealing three radioactive devices from his workplace in Arizona. According to a court filing, the technician intended to release the radioactive materials at a shopping mall, but local police and the FBI arrested him before he could do so.
From 2010 through 2019, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reported over 2,000 nuclear materials events, which included instances of lost or stolen radioactive materials, radiation overexposures, leaks of radioactive materials, and other events. Furthermore, officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which provides enhanced security to facilities with highrisk radioactive materials, told GAO that there is increasing interest among adversaries in using radioactive materials for making a dirty bomb.

GAO says that vulnerabilities arise because NRC’s security requirements do not take into account the most devastating potential effects, including billions of dollars in cleanup costs, and deaths and injuries from chaotic evacuations. In addition, weaknesses in licensing make it relatively easy for bad actors to obtain small quantities of high-risk radioactive materials, which could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Among the risks the GAO highlighted:

·  Potential security weaknesses. GAO has repeatedly found potential security weaknesses at medical and industrial locations storing such materials in the U.S. For example, in 2014, GAO reported that an individual had been given unescorted access to high-risk radioactive materials, even though he had two convictions for terroristic threat. Furthermore, small quantities of radioactive materials located within the same facility are not subject to enhanced security requirements that the total amount would be required to meet. GAO-14-293, GAO-12-925

·  Weak licensing controls for radioactive materials. NRC controls the flow of radioactive materials domestically through a licensing process. DHS, on the other hand, controls the flow internationally through a license verification process. In 2016, we reported that GAO created a fake company to obtain a license for radioactive materials. GAO altered the license and used it to obtain commitments to acquire a dangerous quantity of material. In 2018, GAO reported that agency officials at U.S. airports had not verified the legitimacy of all licenses for imported radioactive materials. GAO-16-330, GAO-18-214

·  Failure to consider key consequences of a dirty bomb. Although NRC has implemented security requirements for large quantities of radioactive materials, it has not done so for small quantities of high-risk radioactive materials that can have significant socioeconomic consequences, even if they do not cause immediate deaths from radiation exposure. However, NRC considers only immediate deaths and health effects from radiation exposure as the criteria for determining what quantities of radioactive materials require enhanced security measures. Ultimately, greater use of technologies that do not rely on these materials could reduce the risk of a dirty bomb, where such alternative technologies are available and effective. GAO-19-468, GAO-22-104113

“Given the risks associated with these materials, which are in widespread use, it may be time to consider greater reliance on alternatives, when feasible,” GAO writes. “Previously, GAO has recommended that Congress consider this matter.”