An Undercover Sting Showed How Easy It Was to Get Nuclear Material in Texas

“In Texas, they were handing it over on the spot, shaking hands and consummating a deal that was a passport to collect these materials.”

By Rhonda FanningAugust 4, 2016 11:30 am,

A dirty bomb: the idea plays on the fear that terrorists can get their hands on enough nuclear material to make a crude device themselves. Maybe it’s possible in some former Soviet Republic, but you couldn’t get nuclear material in the U.S., right?

Wrong – according to a secret investigation conducted in three states, including Texas. Patrick Malone, national security reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO) set up the investigation to follow up on work they did in 2007. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses people who can handle this material.

“For some of the more intense radioactive materials, the types and quantities that could be used in, says, a crude nuclear weapon or a very high-level dirty bomb,” he says, “there are some strict tracking mechanisms for the next tier below, which can be assembled in a quantity that is equal to those more risky substances. There’s far less regulatory oversight.”

At the DC office, investigators wanted to test Texas regulators so they set up a Dallas office space and used a fake name for their safety officer and submitted a fake résumé for it – these steps got them to an in-person inspection from the Texas state health services. Texas officials are supposed to look at an applicant’s storage space and make sure they’re legitimate.

“The GAO went out of its way not to look impressive,” he says. “They had an empty office space…. They designed it so that regulators would pass and the undercover agents would fail, but Texas was the one exception. The inspectors from the state tended to walk around with the licenses on their person and hand them over on the spot without any sort of secondary review.”

Malone says regulators should take it back to a supervisor and assess whether the applicant can be granted a license. “In Texas, they were handing it over on the spot,” he says, “shaking hands and consummating a deal that was a passport to collect these materials.”

A commissioner from the NRC has written a letter that he’d like to see more regulation in Texas for lower-level nuclear material and a decision is due by the end of the year.

“I think it was beyond embarrassing for them,” Malone says. “They have a purpose to protect and they feel like they let society down.”

Post by Hannah McBride.