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GAO slips radioactive material past US border checkpoints

Investigators say substance could have made 2 dirty bombs

WASHINGTON -- Undercover investigators slipped a radioactive substance -- enough, they say, to make two dirty bombs -- across northern and southern US borders last year in a test of security at American ports of entry.

Radiation detection equipment at the unidentified sites went off, but the investigators were permitted to enter the United States after using counterfeit documents to deceive customs agents.

A Government Accountability Office investigation, to be discussed at a Senate hearing today, said equipment used by US Customs and Border Protection agents to screen people, vehicles, and cargo for radioactive substances appeared to work when operated correctly.

But the investigation, carried out between July and December 2005 by the investigative arm of Congress, also identified potential security holes that terrorists seeking to covertly carry nuclear weapons into the United States might be able to exploit.

''This operation demonstrated that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is stuck in a pre-9/11 mind-set in a post-9/11 world and must modernize its procedures," Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, said yesterday in a statement.

The commission, which is in charge of overseeing nuclear reactor and nuclear substance safety, challenged that notion.

''Security has been of prime importance for us on the materials front and the power plant front since 9/11," the commission's spokesman, David McIntyre, said in an interview.

He disputed the GAO's assertion that the substance investigators carried was significant enough to create two dirty bombs, which combine radioactive material with conventional weapons.

''It was basically the radioactive equivalent of what's in a smoke detector," McIntyre said.

A Senate Homeland Security subcommittee, which Coleman leads, released details of the investigation and two GAO reports on radiation detectors and port security before hearings on the issues this week.

The GAO also found that installing the radiation detectors is taking too long and costing more money than the government expected. It said the Homeland Security Department's goal of installing 3,034 detectors by September 2009 across the United States -- at border crossings, seaports, airports, and mail facilities -- was unlikely and said the government probably will spend $342 million more than it expects.

Between October 2000 and October 2005, the GAO said, the government spent about $286 million installing radiation monitors inside the United States.

To test security at US borders with Mexico and Canada, GAO investigators represented themselves as employees of a fake company. They presented counterfeit shipping papers and NRC documents that allegedly permitted them to receive, acquire, possess, and transfer radioactive substances.

Investigators found that customs agents weren't able to check whether a person caught with radioactive materials was permitted to possess the materials under a government-issued license.

''Unless nuclear smugglers in possession of faked license documents raised suspicions in some other way, CBP officers could follow agency guidelines yet unwittingly allow them to enter the country with their illegal nuclear cargo," a report said. It described this problem as ''a significant gap" in the nation's safety procedures.

McIntyre said the commission is working with the Homeland Security Department to ensure customs agents can verify that NRC documents are authentic. He said a national database should be ready later this year, containing the licenses of those who are permitted to possess what the commission has determined to be the two most dangerous categories of radioactive substances.

False radiation alarms are common -- sometimes occurring more than 100 times a day -- although the GAO said inspectors generally do a good job distinguishing nuisance alarms from actual ones.

Those false alarms can be caused by ceramics, fertilizers, bananas, and even patients who have recently undergone some types of medical procedures.

At one port -- which investigators did not identify -- a director frustrated over false alarms was worried that backed-up trains might block the entrance to a nearby military base until an alarm was checked out. The director's solution was to turn off the radiation detector.

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