Lapses in cargo screening uncovered

Undercover officers reveal the need for even tighter security, after sneaking 'dirty' bomb material into the US.

All it took were some forged documents to "smuggle" into the US enough nuclear material to make a "dirty" bomb - the kind that mixes radioactive material with conventional explosives to cause extra damage.

In a government sting, US investigators twice managed to slip the illicit materials across America's border, once at a point of entry from Canada and another time from Mexico. And that was after border agents in both instances detected the presence of the nuclear material, but were duped by Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents the investigators had faked.

Their ability to sneak nuclear material into the US has led General Accountability Office investigators to conclude that the nation needs to do much more to improve nuclear-detection and enforcement at its borders. Between 1993 and 2004, the GAO notes, there were 662 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking of radiological materials around the world - a sure sign that demand for such materials is unabated.

This week in Washington, senators on both sides of the aisle agreed with the GAO assessment. Though acknowledging some improvements in border security since 9/11, they took to task the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for not doing a better job of protecting the nation from radiological threats.

"The ability to identify radioactive source material as it crosses our borders is meaningless if those intending to harm us can acquire counterfeit documents and transport radioactive material into our country," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota at a hearing of the Permanent Committee on Investigations on Tuesday. "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must find a way to change its pre-9/11 mind-set in our post-9/11 world."

A lot to keep track of

DHS's Customs and Border Protection (CPB), working in conjunction with the NRC, is responsible for keeping illicit radiological materials out of the country, and the challenge is enormous. Each day CPB processes 64,000 containers coming into the US by truck, ship, and rail cars; 365,000 vehicles; and more than 1.1 million people at 380 border crossings, according to the GAO.

Since 9/11, DHS has spent $286 million to deploy radiation detectors, called radiation portal monitors.

The GAO report released Tuesday found that 40 percent of the cargo coming into the US is currently screened. Moreover, the technology in use is inefficient, and the goal of deploying enough monitors to screen all cargo for radiological material by 2009 probably won't be met because of bureaucratic delays, it reports. The $1.3 billion program is also expected to cost as much as $340 million more than planned. That's because the new generation of radiological monitors - which are more efficient - cost between $330,000 and $460,000 each, while today's detectors cost between $50,000 and $60,000 apiece.

"This is not getting the attention it deserves from the leadership at the department," says Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security. "The only way you get projects like this off the ground, running effectively, and implemented quickly is with a strong driving force at the top of the department, and that just isn't there."

It was a "Pyrrhic victory," Professor Greenberger says, that border patrol agents successfully identified the material smuggled in during the undercover operation, only to be duped by false documents from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC works in conjunction with Homeland Security officials to prevent illicit radioactive materials from entering the country.

NRC: 'We've imposed greater controls'

The amount of radioactive material smuggled in by GAO investigators was not enough to create a dirty bomb, says David McIntyre, NRC spokesman, disputing the GAO's contention. If it had been enough, he says, more stringent licensing of the materials entering the country would have been required. He also took exception to Senator Coleman's characterization of the NRC as having a "pre-9/11 mind-set."

"We have obviously taken the security of radioactive material very seriously, 24/7 since 9/11," says Mr. McIntyre. "We have imposed greater controls, paperwork, and licensing requirements on the highest-risk sources that would cause the most contamination, injury, and the most difficult cleanup from a radiological standpoint."

Still, he acknowledges, more must be done. The NRC is now working with CPB to create a database that can be accessed 24 hours a day, so that border patrol agents can verify the validity of NRC licenses and other documents. The new system is expected to be operational within 30 days, says CPB spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino. DHS is sticking by its deadline to screen 100 percent of the cargo coming into the US by 2009, she adds.

"Our roll-out schedule is continuing at a quickened pace, and we expect to have significantly more monitors and detection equipment on line in the coming months," she says.

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