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Analysis: Nuke-proofing the U.S. border

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by Shannon Bond
Washington (UPI) Jul 18, 2008
Confusion and miscommunication at border crossings allowed large amounts of potentially dangerous materials to enter the United States without adequate checks, a government investigation has revealed.

In a report released this week, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, called on border patrol officers and nuclear regulators to do a better job of tracking and detecting radioactive materials.

Such materials, which have many legitimate uses in scientific research, medical treatments and industry, are licensed by 35 states as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal nuclear watchdog. When they are brought into the country, the border patrol is supposed to check those licenses.

But GAO investigators found "at one port of entry, (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) officers were confused about when to verify licenses and were routinely permitting large shipments of neutron-emitting material to enter the country."

At other crossings, border officers told investigators they were following outdated rules for checking cargo.

This is "particularly troubling," the report said, not only because it violates official policy, but also because some radioactive substances could be used to make nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, which use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material.

Radiation detectors scan nearly all the truck cargo that crosses daily into the United States from Mexico and Canada. The scanners are sensitive enough to detect even tiny levels of radiation, such as traces found in bananas, ceramics and even people who have undergone medical procedures, the report said.

In 2006 undercover GAO investigators successfully brought radioactive material across the border using fake licenses. In response, the Department of Homeland Security instituted new rules requiring border officers to contact authorities if a shipment gives off more than trace amounts of radiation, to verify that all licenses are valid.

But that updated policy was not communicated to all U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel. "While we found officers generally were aware that radioactive materials and sources must be licensed, they typically did not take steps to verify licenses," the GAO said, and, as a result, the "task of preventing the smuggling of radioactive materials is made more difficult."

Border officials have been issued reminders of the agency's policy, said Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Erlinda Byrd. "People are reporting in the field that they are including it in their standard operating procedures."

The GAO's concerns are "well founded," said P.J. Crowley, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress.

While the likelihood of terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon into the United States is "extremely remote," Crowley said, "if a terrorist is going to use an unconventional weapon, it is probably going to be a radiological device."

But Crowley said it isn't easy to find a balance that keeps dangerous materials secure while also allowing access to them by scientists, doctors and companies that have legitimate uses for them.

"Radioactive material is important in many areas, so you have to have available sources while making sure that you're keeping track of who has it and where it's going, and how it's being used, and also how it's being disposed of."

This is where the nuclear regulators play an important part by tightly controlling who gets access to potentially dangerous material.

"If you have an effective system of licensing and then an effective system of monitoring the movement and use of radioactive material (in the United States and other countries), then that takes the pressure off the border," Crowley said. "The border will still be important, but the border should be the last point of defense, not the only point of defense."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is creating a Web-based system that border officers and other officials can use to check licenses. But the project is more than three years behind schedule and may not include state-issued licenses, which make up more than 80 percent of all licenses in the United States, the GAO said.

"The complexity here is that this is not just a federal responsibility," Crowley said. "So part of this is making sure there is effective sharing of information across different jurisdictions so that you have as complete a picture as possible."

(Medill News Service)

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