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Nuclear Nonproliferation: Additional Actions Needed to Increase the Security of U.S. Industrial Radiological Sources

GAO-14-681T Published: Jun 12, 2014. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2014.
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What GAO Found

Challenges exist in reducing the security risks faced by licensees using high-risk industrial radiological sources, including at industrial facilities in the oil and gas, aerospace, and food sterilization sectors. The challenges licensees face include the portability of some radiological sources (i.e., mobile sources), which makes them susceptible to theft or loss. Licensees also face challenges in protecting against an insider threat—determining which employees are suitable for trustworthiness and reliability certification to have unescorted access to high-risk radiological sources. GAO found two cases where employees were granted unescorted access despite having serious criminal records. In one of the cases, the individual had been twice convicted of terroristic threats. NRC officials said that the person was convicted not of a threat against the United States, but of making violent verbal threats against two individuals. 

Federal agencies responsible for securing radiological sources are taking steps to better secure industrial radiological sources. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been developing a best practices guide and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has two initiatives under way to improve industrial radiological source security. However, NRC, NNSA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—agencies that play a role in nuclear and radiological security—are not always effectively collaborating to achieve the common mission of securing industrial sources. 

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2012, GAO identified security weaknesses at U.S. medical facilities that use high-risk radiological sources. This testimony summarizes the findings of GAO’s most recent report on potential security risks with such sources in the industrial sector. Radioactive material is typically sealed in a metal capsule called a sealed source. In the hands of a terrorist, this radioactive material could be used to construct a “dirty bomb.” NRC is responsible for licensing and regulating the commercial use of radiological sources. NNSA provides voluntary security upgrades to facilities with such sources. This testimony addresses (1) the challenges in reducing security risks posed by industrial radiological sources and (2) the steps federal agencies are taking to improve security of the sources. For the report, GAO visited 33 industrial facilities in the United States. GAO also reviewed laws, regulations, and guidance related to the security of industrial radiological sources and interviewed agency officials at NRC, NNSA, and DHS.

For more information, contact David C. Trimble at 202-512-3841 or

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Federal agenciesIndependent regulatory commissionsIndustrial facilitiesLaboratoriesInternal controlsNuclear facility securityNuclear proliferationPhysical securityRadioactive materialsResearch and development facilitiesRisk factorsSecurity threatsTerrorism