Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Discusses Securing Radiological Materials

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Publication date: 
23 June 2014

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on June 12 to focus on the threat of crude explosives using radiological materials and efforts to secure these materials.  The hearing drew on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Nuclear Nonproliferation: Additional Actions Needed to Increase the Security of U.S. Radiological Sources.  GAO findings included how radiological materials are secured, used, and smuggled.  Following the release of that report, Senators Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Robert Casey (D-PA) requested that the GAO audit construction and industrial sites to determine the status of the security of industrial radiological materials. 

Chairman Thomas Carper (D-DE) opened the hearing describing the potential consequences of a hypothetical radiological attack with a “dirty bomb”.  He noted the negative effects caused by exposure to radiological materials and was interested in the security of the domestic supply of these materials.  “Despite government efforts, industrial radiological sources are far too vulnerable to theft or sabotage by terrorists or others,” noted Carper as he stated that he wanted to learn more about vulnerabilities and “commonsense fixes.”  Given the consequences of dirty bombs, Carper wanted to ensure all necessary steps were being taken to avoid their potential use. 

Four witnesses testified.  Anne Harrington, Deputy Associate Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) spoke about the NNSA’s efforts to increase the security of high-risk radioactive sources.   “Radioactive sources such as Cobalt, Cesium, Americium, and Iridium are used worldwide for many legitimate purposes,” she stated.  She discussed the need to achieve more permanent risk reduction and enhanced security.  Harrington supported a strategic plan for threat reduction that included substituting non-radioactive alternative material devices for radioactive sources and stressed the benefit of “removing the risk of a dirty bomb.”

Huban Gowadia, Director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) of the Department of Homeland Security addressed efforts to prevent and prepare for radiological and nuclear terrorism.   She described the detection architecture and steps DNDO has taken to enhance information sharing capabilities, build capacity with operational partners, and develop new technologies for nuclear detection.  She described the coordinated cooperation between DNDO and other federal agencies.  Intelligence, law enforcement and technology form an important triad for effective nuclear detection, she stated as she described the activities of all three sectors that engage in nuclear detection. 

Mark Satorius, Executive Director for Operations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission described materials security at the Commission.  He spoke about federal collaborations in the Global Threat Reduction Initiative and the improvements in pre-licensing activities.  He also described the integrated materials performance evaluation program and outlined NRC regulations. 

David Trimble, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office described security breaches and vulnerabilities.  He discussed challenges to secure radiological sources, particularly of high-risk portable sources. He noted “radioactive material is used worldwide for legitimate commercial purposes, including industrial processes in the oil and gas, aerospace, and food sterilization sectors.”  However he stated that there was “great variation” in security of radioactive sources and cautioned that “some facilities appear to have vulnerabilities.”  The threat of an individual stealing a radiological source “includes both an outsider and insider threat.”  Trimble summarized the challenges in reducing security risks in industrial sources and the steps federal agencies use to ensure the security of those sources.   While federal agencies are taking steps to secure radioactive sources they are “not always effectively collaborating,” stated Trimble. 

Following the testimony, Carper engaged Trimble in a discussion about photos of facilities containing radiological materials.  Carper was interested in learning about handheld devices and the potential for those to be used as weapons.  He was particularly focused on regulatory gaps and potential security vulnerabilities. Trimble stated that it would be possible to create a weapon with a single handheld device.   Satorius discussed updated regulations and the process to establish new rules. 

The hearing demonstrated that addition actions are required to improve the security of radiological sources.  Harrington discussed the security measures taken by law enforcement and other means for threat reduction.  Issues identified by the GAO in the licensing process include identifying risks associated with types of locks for areas used to store sources, trustworthiness and reliability certifications for employees, and security of facilities.