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Investigators expose lax security for radioactive material

(The following report by Chris Strohm of CongressDaily appeared at GovExec.com on March 28.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal efforts to prevent illicit nuclear and radiological material from being smuggled into the United States through land crossings and seaports are plagued by major flaws, schedule delays and cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to government investigators.

Undercover GAO investigators were able to smuggle radioactive material -- enough to make two dirty bombs -- across land ports of entry during tests in December. Radiation portal monitors accurately detected the radioactive material, but investigators got past the Customs inspectors by presenting fraudulent licenses for the material.

Overall, the government's effort to deploy more than 3,000 radiation portal monitors to all ports of entry by 2009 is "unrealistic" and will likely experience a cost overrun of $342 million, the GAO concluded in a report released Tuesday.

The situation is particularly bleak at seaports because the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection agency has not been able to get port operators to agree to install radiation portal monitors, especially for screening cargo being put on railroad cars and shipped to the interior of the country, GAO said.

"CBP has experienced difficulty deploying portal monitors at seaports," GAO wrote. "As a result, the agency has fallen two years behind its seaport deployment schedule -- and seaports continue to be vulnerable to nuclear smuggling. Significantly, there is no clear solution and no reason to be optimistic that progress can be made soon."

The report said seaports will likely avoid installing detection equipment for rail, or simply turn it off when its operation might be inconvenient to the flow of commerce. "Without more progress on this front, we risk rail cargo becoming a burgeoning gap in our defenses against nuclear terrorism," GAO said.

Only about 40 percent of seaports now have radiation portal monitors. By comparison, about 90 percent of northern land ports of entry and 80 percent of southern land ports have the devices.

The GAO report is the latest development in a three-year probe by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into vulnerabilities of the nation's border. The panel's chairman, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., will hold a hearing today on the report's findings and the threats posed by nuclear and radiological smuggling.

Senior subcommittee aides told reporters Monday they have "a great deal of confidence" in Homeland Security's new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which was established last year to coordinate efforts to deploy radiation portal monitors. But they said the delay in getting equipment out -- particularly to seaports -- is "unacceptable" more than four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

They also said GAO's ability to smuggle radioactive material across two land ports last December exposed a series of troubling flaws. First, GAO investigators were able to buy radioactive material from a commercial source in the United States posing as employees of a fictitious company.

The investigators took the material out of the country and brought it back in through two ports of entry, one at the U.S-Canadian border, the other at the U.S.-Mexican border. Neither GAO nor the aides would say which specific border crossings the investigators used for re-entry.

The "good news" is that the radiation monitors at the ports detected the radioactive material, showing that the equipment works, the aides said. CBP inspectors also followed appropriate procedures for checking the material. But investigators then presented fraudulent licenses for the material from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Customs inspectors did not have any way to verify the licenses.

"As a result, unless nuclear smugglers in possession of faked license documents raised suspicions in some other way, CBP officers could follow agency guidelines yet unwittingly allow them to enter the country with their illegal nuclear cargo," GAO wrote.

The tests showed the NRC needs to change its oversight of licensing radioactive material and develop a plan to share the information with CBP inspectors, the Senate aides said.

"Basically, it's easier to buy radiological material here in the United States than it is to get cold medicine," one aide said. "It's just an indictment of the system . . . . We are going to continue to aggressively pursue this issue with the NRC over the next few months."

The GAO report included a response from Homeland Security, which agreed with the findings.

Another GAO report scheduled for release today also found that U.S. efforts to install and update radiation portal monitors at land crossings in foreign countries is also lacking, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe. The report found that efforts have been undermined by corrupt border officials, technical limitations on some equipment, inadequate maintenance of some equipment and the lack of necessary infrastructure at some sites.

The report also concludes that the U.S. government does not have a "master list" of all U.S.-funded radiation detection equipment overseas, making it nearly impossible to assess if the equipment is operational or in need of repair.

Friday, March 31, 2006

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