By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 8/1/2007 6:07:53 AM ET 2007-08-01T10:07:53

The agency tasked with sensitive investigations of the U.S. nuclear industry is having trouble keeping track of its guns, according to a new audit.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Investigations was unable during a surprise inspection to produce 15 out of 17 firearms it listed as being stored at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md. A third gun that was found at headquarters was listed as being stored in another office.

Auditors eventually accounted for all 48 handguns listed in NRC property records, but subsequent inspection determined that serial numbers recorded for 13 of them contained typographical errors.

Those are among headlines in a July 12 report by the NRC’s inspector general on how the NRC manages $26 million worth of equipment, ranging from laptop computers to cameras.

According to the audit, the mistakes in tracking guns are among numerous problems with an error-filled property tracking system that “lacks adequate accountability” and sets the NRC up for “loss of property and information, inefficient use of staff time, and potential unnecessary expense.”

“A rigorous effort by the NRC senior management is needed to initiate and sustain improvements to the property management program,” according to the audit, which points out that the agency is in the midst of adding 228 full-time employees to its existing staff of 3,270.

The NRC, which has an annual budget of $742 million, is charged with overseeing the non-military use of nuclear materials within the United States.

The NRC’s Office of Public Affairs would not answer specific questions about the audit, but an agency spokesman issued this statement: "The OIG's audit discovered some record-keeping discrepancies between the official agency property records and the Office of Investigations' internal records regarding firearms issued to OI agents. In fact, OI's internal records were thorough and complete, and no firearms were unaccounted for. In the course of operations, new weapons were issued and agents relocated; such changes should have been noted in the official agency records but were not. The NRC takes its record-keeping requirements seriously, especially with regards to such important items as firearms. The records are being corrected."

The Office of Investigations was the subject of an MSNBC.com report in April detailing how it quietly obtained armed federal police status for its agents, who have never arrested anyone in 25 years of operations.

Critics say the sloppiness points up larger problems at the NRC.  

"There is no accountability,” said Dave Lochbaum, a former nuclear power plant engineer and spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This NRC nonsense will likely persist until innocent Americans die. Then Congress will hold televised oversight hearings, shake fingers and pound desktops, and force NRC to straighten up its act — for about a month, when the next lackadaisical agency causes some mayhem.”

He also said the audit “reflects the NRC's double standard,” maintaining that if NRC investigators found similar problems with firearms record-keeping by security forces at a nuclear facility, the plant’s operators would be sanctioned “harshly.”

Another critic, Jim Riccio of Greenpeace, said, “If NRC's OI can’t even get something as simple as serial numbers right, it doesn't give the public a lot of confidence in their ability to investigate and uncover serious wrongdoing in the nuclear industry."

No police powers for decades
The Office of Investigations was formed in 1982 to investigate violations by NRC licensees and contractors. Its cases typically involve matters such as falsified documents, misplaced equipment and workers sleeping on the job.

Guy Caputo

For decades, OI agents operated without police powers. Starting in 2005, however, all 30 OI agents were deputized as U.S. marshals, allowing them to make arrests, serve search warrants and carry firearms.

OI Director Guy Caputo told MSNBC.com earlier this year that the “blanket deputation” was critical to the mission of his office, but his critics see no reason for it beyond the fact that it helped justify average annual salaries of $130,000 for OI agents.

Caputo acknowledged that his agents had never made a single arrest, before or after they were authorized to carry guns. And when OI agents suspect a crime has been committed, they are supposed to refer the matter to the Justice Department, which then decides whether to pursue criminal charges.

James Foster

“The NRC Office of Investigations, lacking criminal investigative authority, should not be deputized or have guns in the first place,” said Jim Foster, who worked in the predecessor to OI and has been questioning how the office operates for years. “Guns are hazardous and sensitive pieces of equipment and should be properly controlled and inventoried,” said Foster.

While Foster, who also once worked as a gun-packing federal air marshal, and others question the need for OI agents to carry guns and have police powers, they do not dispute the importance of the office's investigations, which often concern the integrity of how the nation's 104 nuclear power plants are operated.

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