Radioactive materials are used throughout the United States for medical, industrial, and research purposes. For instance, these materials help treat cancer, sterilize food and medical instruments, and detect flaws in metal welds. However, these materials could also be very dangerous in the hands of terrorists.
Several federal agencies play key roles in assuring that radioactive materials stay out of the hands of terrorists. For instance, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have all taken steps to improve the security of some sources of radioactive materials at medical, industrial, and research facilities. Additionally, NNSA has partnered with 59 countries to provide radiation detection equipment and support to help prevent nuclear and radiological smuggling into the United States.
In the hands of terrorists, some radioactive materials could be used to construct a radiological dispersal device (i.e., a “dirty bomb”), which uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. This type of bomb could expose nearby individuals to radiation and increase their long-term risks of cancer. The NRC considers the health risks from short-term radiation exposure when determining how to safeguard radioactive material. However, it should also consider factors such as deaths during an evacuation and the cost of environmental cleanup. Additionally, key NRC security requirements only apply to large quantities of radioactive material, even though both large and small amounts of material could produce many billions of dollars of socioeconomic damage.
A Radiological Dispersal Device
(This is a fictional urban landscape and is not intended to represent any specific city or urban area.)
NRC has worked to ensure that licenses for radioactive materials are granted only to legitimate organizations, and that licensees can only obtain such materials in quantities allowed by their licenses. However, investigators set up fake businesses and were able to obtain genuine licenses to purchase dangerous quantities of radioactive material in 2007,2016, and2022.
Radioactive Material Delivered to GAO's Shell Companies
There are opportunities to permanently reduce the risks of radioactive material by making greater use of alternative technologies. However, no agency in the federal government has the lead on developing these technologies or encouraging their use. In fact, some agencies operate at cross purposes with each other. To address this,Congress could consider establishing a national strategy for replacing technologies that use high-risk radioactive materials where there are viable alternatives.
DHS’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office plays a key role in preventing radioactive material from getting in the hands of terrorists. However, this office has struggled to acquire newer technology needed to prevent the smuggling of radioactive and nuclear materials.