By Spencer S. Hsu and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Congressional investigators testing U.S. port security smuggled enough radioactive material into the United States last year to make two radiological "dirty" bombs, officials told a Senate panel yesterday.
In December, undercover teams from the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, carried small amounts of cesium-137 -- a radioactive material used for cancer therapy, industrial gauges and well logging -- in the trunks of rental cars through border checkpoints in Texas and Washington state. The material triggered radiation alarms, but the smugglers used false documents to persuade U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors to let them through with it.
"These are documents my 20-year-old son could easily develop with a simple Internet search," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who chaired the hearing into covert nuclear threats before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee yesterday. "It is a problem when it is tougher to buy cold medicine than it is to acquire enough material to construct a dirty bomb."
Jayson P. Ahern, an assistant commissioner for field operations for Customs and Border Protection, said U.S. customs officers were unable to confirm the validity of counterfeit Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses presented by testers, but a system will be in place within 30 days to do so.
"All our systems worked, and officers appeared to follow our protocols," Ahern said. "But the bottom line is the material was allowed in with questionable documents."
The GAO report is the latest to find weaknesses in implementing detection systems for air travel and biological, chemical and radiological threats. Another GAO report yesterday found that foreign corruption, technical limitations, poor maintenance and lack of infrastructure compromise detection systems placed overseas by the United States. But Ahern said U.S. customs officers have scanned more than 80 million containers with radiation portal monitors since 2000, resolved 318,000 alarms and turned up no illegal material.
Homeland Security and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, while not discounting the economic and psychological effects of a conventional explosive laced with radioactive materials or "dirty bomb," said the amounts smuggled were minimal.
Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the 150 microcuries of cesium-137 smuggled by each team would barely cause more than one death from cancer per million people exposed for 30 years.
The GAO also reported it is "unlikely" the Department of Homeland Security can install 3,034 new-generation radiation detectors by September 2009 as planned at border crossings, ports and mail facilities, and that the $1.2 billion program may incur a $342 million overrun.
In a separate report released yesterday, the Council on Foreign Relations reported that the government has not made prevention of nuclear terrorism its highest priority. Council fellow Charles D. Ferguson said more action is needed to address proliferation threats posed by highly enriched uranium and weapons in Pakistan, Russia and more than 100 civilian facilities.
"Securing and eliminating vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons offer points of greatest leverage in preventing nuclear terrorism," Ferguson wrote. "The biggest impediment to reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism involving Pakistan is President [Pervez] Musharraf's expressed belief that terrorists cannot make nuclear weapons."
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there were more than 400 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking in materials that could be used to produce a dirty bomb between 1993 and 2004, and 21 that involved material that could be used to produce a nuclear bomb.
"The simple fact is that if a nuclear device is already in the U.S., it's too late," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said.