GAO's investigators manage to smuggle nuclear materials into U.S.

Published 28 March 2006

GAO’s undercover agents managed to smuggle radioactive material into the U.S.; nuclear sniffers at the ports of entry discovered the material, but border guards were easily fooled by fake documents — and the lack of a centralized registry listing what people and companies are allowed to ship nuclear materials

This is not good: Undercover investigators working for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) managed to slip a radioactive substance — enough to make two dirty bombs — across northern and southern U.S. borders last year. The nuclear smuggling was part of a test of security at American ports of entry. The ports of entry were equipped with radiation detection equipment, and the equipment did detect the nuclear material, but the investigators were permitted to enter the United States after they displayed counterfeit documents that deceive customs agents. GAO investigators represented themselves as employees of a fake company. They presented counterfeit shipping papers and NRC documents which allegedly permitted them to receive, acquire, possess, and transfer radioactive substances. The investigators found that customs agents were unable to check whether a person caught with radioactive materials was permitted to have the materials under a government-issued license.

The investigation was carried out between July and December 2005, and it also identified potential security holes which terrorists seeking to carry nuclear weapons into the United States might be able to exploit. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is in charge of overseeing nuclear reactor and nuclear substance safety, challenged the GAO findings. NRC spokesperson, David McIntyre, disputed the GAO’s claim that the substance investigators carried was significant enough to have been to create two dirty bombs, which combine radioactive material with conventional weapons. “It was basically the radioactive equivalent of what’s in a smoke detector,” McIntyre said.

The test was part of a GAO investigation into the state of nuclear radiation detection at U.S. ports of entry. The GAO said that installing the radiation detectors is taking too long and costing more money than the United States expected. It said DHS’s goal of installing 3,034 detectors by September 2009 across the United States — at border crossings, seaports, airports, and mail facilities — was unlikely and said the government probably will spend $342 million more than it had expected. Between October 2000 and October 2005, the GAO said, the government spent about $286 million installing radiation monitors inside the United States.