WASHINGTON – Undercover investigators slipped radioactive material – enough to make two small “dirty bombs” – across U.S. borders in Texas and Washington state last year in a test of security at American points of entry.
Radiation alarms at the unidentified sites detected the small amounts of cesium-137, a nuclear material used in industrial gauges. But U.S. customs agents permitted the investigators to enter the United States because they were tricked with counterfeit documents.
The Bush administration said Monday that within 45 days it will give U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents the tools they need to verify such documents in the future.
The Government Accountability Office’s report, the subject of a Senate hearing today, said detection equipment used by U.S. customs agents to screen people, vehicles and cargo for radioactive substances appeared to work as designed.
But the investigation, carried out simultaneously at both border crossings in December, also identified potential security holes terrorists might be able to exploit to sneak nuclear materials into the United States.
“This operation demonstrated that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is stuck in a pre-9/11 mind-set in a post-9/11 world and must modernize its procedures,” Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said Monday in a statement.
The regulatory commission, in charge of overseeing nuclear reactor and nuclear substance safety, challenged that notion.
“Security has been of prime importance for us on the materials front and the power plant front since 9/11,” commission spokesman David McIntyre said in an interview.
Cesium-137 could have been used in a radiological weapon with limited effects, said Vayl Oxford, the head of the Homeland Security Department’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
A Senate Homeland Security subcommittee, which Coleman leads, released details of the investigation and two GAO reports on radiation detectors and port security before hearings on the issues this week.
To test security at U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, GAO investigators represented themselves as employees of a fake company. When stopped, they presented counterfeit shipping papers and Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents that allegedly permitted them to receive, acquire, possess and transfer radioactive substances.
Investigators found that customs agents weren’t able to check whether a person caught with radioactive materials was permitted to possess the materials under a government-issued license.