Undercover federal agents were easily able to fool the Nuclear Regulatory Commission into providing them with a license to obtain radiological material that could be used to make a “dirty bomb,” NBC News has learned.
The undercover agents, who work for the Government Accountability Office, filled out forms online and were able to obtain an NRC license to buy several radiological "sources," according to several sources familiar with the GAO report. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Within four weeks, the NRC mailed a license to the undercover GAO officials, who had posed as a construction company based in West Virginia and never needed to leave their offices to get the license. The NRC only called the phony company once and never conducted a site visit, the GAO report says. The license would have allowed the GAO undercover team to buy moisture-density gauges, which are used in the construction field and contain sealed radioactive material.
The GAO investigators contacted several vendors, presented their NRC license and got letters of intent to buy several gauges.
Many experts in the field have worried for years that terrorists could use exactly these kinds of sources to construct a rudimentary radiological or "dirty” bomb, in combination with conventional explosives.
GAO has completed a report on its undercover investigation and will present it Thursday to the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
Agency says it addressed problem
NRC officials, who will testify Thursday before the Senate subcommittee, acknowledge that the agency's security practices need improving. "GAO’s most recent report has raised issues about the adequacy of these procedures because of their ability to obtain and modify an NRC license issued to a fake West Virginia firm," writes NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. in prepared remarks for the committee.
McGaffigan says the "NRC acted promptly to address the vulnerabilities in NRC’s licensing process identified by GAO." He said the amount of radiological material that the GAO could have obtained and put into a bomb would not have resulted in very significant radiological exposure to the public.
He also said that within 24 hours of learning of the GAO's findings, the NRC "suspended issuance of all new materials licenses for about two weeks, pending issuance of revised interim procedures to address the GAO concerns."