Nuclear Security:

NRC and DHS Need to Take Additional Steps to Better Track and Detect Radioactive Materials

GAO-08-598: Published: Jun 19, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2008.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Eugene E. Aloise
(202) 512-6870
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Concerns have grown that terrorists could use radioactive materials and sealed sources (materials sealed in a capsule) to build a "dirty bomb"-- a device using conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. In 2003, GAO found weaknesses in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) radioactive materials licensing process and made recommendations for improvement. For this report, GAO assesses (1) the progress NRC has made in implementing the 2003 recommendations, (2) other steps NRC has taken to improve its ability to track radioactive materials, (3) Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) ability to detect radioactive materials at land ports of entry, and (4) CBP's ability to verify that such materials are appropriately licensed prior to entering the United States. To perform this work, GAO assessed documents and interviewed NRC and CBP officials in headquarters and in several field locations.

NRC has implemented three of the six recommendations in GAO's 2003 report on the security of radioactive sources. It has worked with the 35 states to which it ceded primary authority to regulate radioactive materials and sources and others to (1) identify sealed sources of greatest concern, (2) enhance requirements to secure radioactive sources, and (3) ensure security requirements are implemented. In contrast, NRC has made limited progress toward implementing recommendations to (1) modify its process for issuing licenses to ensure that radioactive materials cannot be purchased by those with no legitimate need for them, (2) determine how to effectively mitigate the potential psychological effects of malicious use of such materials, and (3) examine whether certain radioactive sources should be subject to more stringent regulations. Beyond acting on GAO's recommendations, NRC has also taken four steps to improve its ability to monitor and track radioactive materials. First, NRC created an interim national database to monitor the licensed sealed sources containing materials that pose the greatest risk of being used in a dirty bomb. Second, NRC is developing a National Source Tracking System to replace the interim database and provide more comprehensive, frequently updated information on potentially dangerous sources. However, this system has been delayed by 18 months and is not expected to be fully operational until January 2009. Third, NRC is also developing a Web-based licensing system that will include more comprehensive information on all sources and materials that require NRC or state approval to possess. Finally, NRC is developing a license verification system that will draw information from the other new systems to enable officials and vendors to verify that those seeking to bring these radioactive materials into the country or purchase them are licensed to do so. However, these systems are more than 3 years behind schedule and may not include the licensing information, initially at least, on radioactive materials regulated by agreement states--which represent over 80 percent of all U.S. licenses for such materials. The delays in the deployment and full development of these systems are especially consequential because NRC has identified their deployment as key to improving the control and accountability of radioactive materials. While CBP has a comprehensive system in place to detect radioactive materials entering the United States at land borders, some equipment that is used to protect CBP officers is in short supply. Specifically, vehicles, cargo, and people entering the United States at most ports of entry along the Canadian and Mexican borders are scanned for radioactive materials with radiation detection equipment capable of detecting very small amounts of radiation. However we found that personal radiation detectors are not available to all officers who need them. Moreover, while CBP has systems in place to verify the legitimacy of radioactive materials licenses, it has not effectively communicated to officers at the borders when they must contact officials to verify the license for a given sealed source. Consequently, some CPB officers are not following current guidance, and some potentially dangerous radioactive materials have entered the country without license verification.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our March 2006 reports assessing the progress DHS has made deploying radiation detection equipment at U.S. ports of entry and detailing how our investigators used fake documents to bring licensable quantities of industrial radioactive sources into the United States respectively, CBP revised its policy. SPecifically, in May 2006, CBP issued a memorandum that officials told us tightened security by requiring CBP officers to contact the center to verify the legitimacy of a license or obtain technical assistance whenever they detect more than incidental, trace amounts of radiation, such as that found in ceramics and bananas or in people who have recently undergone a medical treatment using radionuclides. Specifically, the 2006 memorandum states that CBP officers should contact the National Targeting Center for assistance whenever they require assistance in determining whether (1) a shipment contains industrial radioactive material or radioactive material of concern, (2) industrial radioactive material carried by a commercial importer or traveler is of sufficient quantity to require licensing by NRC or an agreement state, or (3) an NRC licensee or shipper is authentic. This memorandum, according to headquarters officials, was intended to communicate to officers at the border that they should call to verify all licensable or more than trace amounts of radioactive material. That is, without the assistance of the National Targeting Center, CBP officers at a port of entry cannot determine whether (1) the radioactive material requires an NRC or agreement state license or (2) a licensee or shipper is authentic. In fact, the memorandum states that ?CBP officers in the field currently do not have an automated system from which to query the legitimacy of NRC licensee or shipper information.? Therefore, CBP officers who encounter more than only trace amounts of radioactive materials have no alternative but to call the National Targeting Center for help. This updated guidance, however, was not effectively communicated to officers at the border. Specifically, we asked border officials at the seven ports of entry we visited and the four others we interviewed on the telephone about the current guidance they use for regulating the flow of radioactive materials across borders. All either provided us copies of the 2003 radiation detection program directive or confirmed it was current and operative, and some gave us versions of the directive that were port-specific, and therefore, more detailed. Only one port of entry provided us with guidance reflecting the May 2006 memorandum and its requirement that CBP officers contact the National Targeting Center to verify the legitimacy of all licensable quantities of radioactive materials crossing the border. In addition, the officers we spoke to had minimal knowledge of the general regulatory structure established by NRC and agreement states. While we found officers generally were aware that radioactive materials and sources must be licensed, they were unlikely to know what the threshold is for radioactive materials licensed through NRC and agreement states and typically did not take steps to verify licenses, as required by the May 2006 guidance. In response to this recommendation, on May 29, 2008 CBP's Director of Cargo and Conveyance Security sent a memorandum to all directors of field operations and the director of preclearance operations requiring all field offices incorporate this guidance into their operating procedures and ensure that all CBP officers under their jurisdiciton receive this announcement in the week of June 2, 2008 muster reiterating and clarifying what the policy on contacting LSS, that this policy is mandatory, and be made aware that this guidance is part of their on the job training.

    Recommendation: To improve the likelihood of preventing radioactive sources and materials from being smuggled into the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection to effectively communicate current Customs and Border Protection guidance to officers at ports of entry regarding when they are required to contact the National Targeting Center to verify that radioactive materials are legitimately licensed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On a June 30, 2009 NRC Commissioners split their votes 2-2 on whether to accept the staff's recommendation to issue a final rule on expanding the number and type of radioactive sources to be tracked in the NSTS to include Category 3 and larger Category 4 sources. The result of a tie vote is that there is no action taken. According to the deputy director of NRC's Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs, there been no action on this issue since the June 2009 vote and there is no Commission direction to staff to submit this or a revised rule to the Commission for a vote any time in the foreseeable future. Update, 5/23/12: The Commission has not taken any further steps to include below category 2 since its June 2009 2-2 vote not to do so. However, according NRC officials, the Commission may revisit this issue in the next few years as progress is made in deploying and operating WBL and LVS (which could as early as late 2013). The Commission feels it is important to have WBL and LVS functional before proceeding with stricter tracking requirements on lower level source holders (below category 2) owing to the regulatory burden on tracking such sources without these other systems fully in place and functional. Update 9/19/12: No commission action is planned or expected in FY 2012. Recommendation closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: Because some quantities of radioactive materials are potentially dangerous to human health if not properly handled, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should complete the steps needed to include all potentially dangerous radioactive sources (category 3 and the larger category 4 sources, as well as categories 1 and 2) in the National Source Tracking System as quickly as is reasonably possible.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC successfully launched the National Source Tracking System by the January 2009 target date. In addition, NRC launched the Web-based licensing system in August 2012 and plans to have this system fully available to all agreement states in 2013. With regard to the license verification system, NRC is still developing this system and expects to launch its first phase of this system in May 2013. Given the overall progress of developing all three of these systems, and implementing two of them, it appears that NRC has taken steps to give priority attention to these efforts and therefore taken the steps necessary to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the repeated delays in implementing improvements to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's ability to monitor and track radioactive sealed sources, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should take steps, consistent with sound systems development practices, to ensure that priority attention is given to meeting the current January 2009 and summer 2010 target dates for launching the National Source Tracking System, Web-based licensing system, and the new license verification system, respectively.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our March 2006 reports assessing the progress DHS has made deploying radiation detection equipment at U.S. ports of entry and detailing how our investigators used fake documents to bring licensable quantities of industrial radioactive sources into the United States respectively, CBP revised its policy. Specifically, in May 2006, CBP issued a memorandum that officials told us tightened security by requiring CBP officers to contact the center to verify the legitimacy of a license or obtain technical assistance whenever they detect more than incidental, trace amounts of radiation, such as that found in ceramics and bananas or in people who have recently undergone a medical treatment using radionuclides. This memorandum, according to headquarters officials, was intended to communicate to officers at the border that they should verify the legitimacy of radioactive materials because CBP officers at a port of entry cannot determine whether a licensee or shipper is authentic without the assistance of the National Targeting Center. This updated guidance, however, was not effectively communicated to officers at the border. Specifically, we asked border officials at the several ports of entry we visited and the four others we interviewed on the telephone about the current guidance they use for regulating the flow of radioactive materials across borders. All either provided us copies of the 2003 radiation detection program directive or confirmed it was current and operative, and some gave us versions of the directive that were port-specific, and therefore, more detailed. Only one port of entry provided us with guidance reflecting the May 2006 memorandum and its requirement that CBP officers contact the National Targeting Center to verify the legitimacy of all licensable quantities of radioactive materials crossing the border. Moreover, officials at all these ports of entry told us that they contact the National Targeting Center for technical assistance when they need it; officials at only one port of entry told us they would call solely to verify whether radioactive materials are appropriately licensed. We recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security direct the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection to effectively communicate current Customs and Border Protection guidance to officers at ports of entry regarding when they are required to contact the National Targeting Center to verify that radioactive materials are legitimately licensed and that they take measures to ensure that this guidance is being followed. In response to this recommendation, on May 29, 2008 CBP's Director of Cargo and Conveyance Security sent a memorandum to all directors of field operations and the director of preclearance operations requiring all field offices incorporate this guidance into their operating procedures and ensure that all CBP officers under their jurisdiction receive and implement this announcement in the week of June 2, 2008. In October 2008 CBP sent figures to GAO detailing how the number of calls to the National Targeting Center and the number of NRC license verifications rose significantly (35% more calls) in the 4 months after the guidance was communicated to the field, demonstrating that CBP had taken measure to ensure that the guidance was being implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the likelihood of preventing radioactive sources and materials from being smuggled into the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection to take measures to ensure that this guidance is being followed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Nov 18, 2014

Nov 13, 2014

Oct 10, 2014

Sep 30, 2014

Sep 22, 2014

Jul 9, 2014

May 14, 2014

Apr 30, 2014

Mar 26, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here