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GAO Warns of Increasing Risk of a Dirty Bomb Attack

The risks of a dirty bomb attack are increasing and the consequences could be devastating. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2019 that a dirty bomb using radioactive materials could trigger mass evacuations and have socioeconomic costs of billions of dollars. For example, an accident at a hospital in 2019 involving a small quantity of radioactive materials resulted in clean-up and other costs of $150 million for that building alone. Many GAO recommendations to reduce the risks of these materials have not yet been implemented.

Numerous incidents indicate weaknesses in controls over radioactive materials that could be used in a dirty bomb. Recent security threats have raised concerns that radioactive materials could be stolen and used in a domestic attack. For example, in April 2019, a technician was arrested after stealing three radioactive devices from his workplace in Arizona. According to a court filing, the technician intended to release the radioactive materials at a shopping mall, but local police and the FBI arrested him before he could do so. From 2010 through 2019, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reported over 2,000 nuclear materials events, which included instances of lost or stolen radioactive materials, radiation overexposures, leaks of radioactive materials, and other events. Furthermore, officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which provides enhanced security to facilities with highrisk radioactive materials, told GAO that there is increasing interest among adversaries in using radioactive materials for making a dirty bomb. 

Vulnerabilities arise because NRC’s security requirements do not take into account the most devastating potential effects, including billions of dollars in cleanup costs, and deaths and injuries from chaotic evacuations. In addition, weaknesses in licensing make it relatively easy for bad actors to obtain small quantities of high-risk radioactive materials, which could be dangerous in the wrong hands. Given the risks associated with these materials, which are in widespread use, it may be time to consider greater reliance on alternatives, when feasible. Previously, GAO has recommended that Congress consider this matter. 

NRC, NNSA, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and others play a role in radioactive material security. Agencies have implemented several GAO recommendations for improving radioactive material security. For example, DHS strengthened the vetting for imports of radioactive materials. However, as of April 2022, NRC has not yet implemented a number of key recommendations to address vulnerabilities that GAO has identified.

Read the full report at GAO

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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