International inspectors working in the former Soviet republic of Georgia last summer tracked down dangerous radiological materials in an abandoned military complex.
It was an important mission. But a new report by U.S. government watchdogs says a parallel effort overseas by the U.S. Department of Energy has made only "limited progress securing many of the most dangerous sources" — waste disposal sites and abandoned generators across Russia, each with enough material for several devastating dirty bombs.
The new report by the Government Accountability Office says that DOE is doing an admirable job securing low-risk radiological sources — the proverbial low-hanging fruit — at the expense of more dangerous materials that remain vulnerable to terrorists.
“Many of the highest-risk and most dangerous sources still remain unsecured, particularly in Russia,” the GAO writes. “Specifically, 16 or 20 waste storage sites across Russia and Ukraine remain unsecured while more than 700 RTGs [radioisotope thermoelectric generators] remain operational or abandoned in Russia and are vulnerable to theft or potential misuse.”
RTGs can contain up to 250,000 curies of Strontium-90. Experts say an explosion with that amount of Strontium-90 could be dangerous.
"You would cause a significant contamination over a square mile — many, many city blocks, and with the right city blocks, Wall Street or the White House,” says Leonard S. Spector, deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute. “The impact could be very devastating.”
A test explosion by U.S. scientists working at the Sandia National Labs near Albuquerque, N.M., showed how a dirty bomb works: Conventional explosives spread the radioactive material, which can contaminate large areas.
The new report says the DOE has focused most of its energies in the last three years on securing small sources of radioactive materials in Russia and abroad — largely found in medical equipment stored in doctors’ offices.
Meanwhile, the report says, major waste disposal sites sit protected by primitive fences. And more than 700 generators are vulnerable to terrorists.
"If you look at the past six months, we see, I think, an upsurge in criminal and terrorist activity using radioactive materials,” says Charles Ferguson, a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Last year, according to the International Atomic Energy Association, there were 85 confirmed thefts or loss of nuclear or radioactive materials worldwide — mostly small amounts. Most of those have not been recovered.
Last fall, al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq called on militant scientists to create dirty bombs to be tested on U.S. bases in Iraq.
“I am disturbingly concerned about this because it can grow into a huge threat,” says Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who will chair a hearing Tuesday on the issue at a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security. “These generators are sources that can be used for dirty bombs, and [they are] there for the taking. I feel that DOE is not meeting the priority of our nation in security.”
The report also criticizes the DOE for a “steady” decline in its budget for the International Radiological Threat Reduction program. It says, “[F]uture funding is uncertain because the agency places a higher priority on securing special nuclear material” than it does in protecting dirty-bomb material.
The DOE points out that the GAO report also applauds its efforts in many areas. The agency also says it has made progress, having upgraded security at 500 sites in more than 40 countries. DOE officials say they are now moving to secure more of those high-risk generators and waste sites in Russia, and that their budget request for next year represents a slight increase.
“DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration are committed to securing and removing vulnerable radiological sources around the world,” says Andrew Bieniawski, who heads up the DOE’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative, run under the National Nuclear Security Administration.
As of January, the agency has spent approximately $120 million to secure vulnerable radiological sources, an expenditure that demonstrates a strong commitment to a program that has produced tangible results and reduced the risks of terrorists acquiring the materials to make a dirty bomb, Bieniawski said.