Nuclear Device Recovered in Virginia Beach Pawn Shop

Stolen during transit, radioactive device was sold to pawn dealer; NRC to investigate theft


RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- A device containing radioactive material was discovered Friday in a Virginia Beach pawnshop, almost two weeks after it was stolen from a truck while its driver went shopping, federal authorities said.

Mitchell Dunbar, owner of Superior Pawn and Gun Shop, said he didn't know what to make of the device, which includes a foot-long shielding container and a handle on top. He said he only learned early Friday morning, when listening to the news on television, that it had been stolen and contained radioactive material.

``The last thing I expected coming through these doors was a radioactive measuring device,'' Dunbar said. ``I'm more concerned about people bringing loaded guns into the store.''

After Dunbar called the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, local police and FBI agents arrived at the store. Foundation Engineering Science Inc., which had reported the gauge's disappearance earlier this week, picked up the device.

The NRC now is trying to find out ``why the device would be allowed to be stolen in the first place,'' said Neil Sheehan, an agency spokesman. ``It either has to be under surveillance or has to be locked up. Neither was occurring.''

The Newport News company told the commission about the missing device Monday, after it confronted the employee about the device's whereabouts, Sheehan said. The worker acknowledged that the gauge had disappeared from his firm's pickup truck on Oct. 18, while he shopped at a Wal-Mart in Norfolk, he said.

Two individuals were seen on a security videotape taking the device and driving off in a blue car about 10 a.m. that day, the NRC said.

Sheehan said the business could be fined for failing to secure the device.

Cindy El-Awar, the company's president, said the employee had received specific training on the security required for radioactive devices. The worker was immediately fired, she said.

A Superior Pawn store in Norfolk bought the gauge the same day it was stolen, Dunbar said. The device was later brought to the Virginia Beach store.

Dunbar said he provided authorities with information about the seller. Friday afternoon, Norfolk police said they had a suspect in the case and a grand larceny charge is pending.

Dunbar said Foundation Engineering didn't reimburse him for the $30 he paid for device, which is actually worth between $8,000 and $10,000.

``That really irritated me,'' Dunbar said. ``But (the company) probably has bigger problems with the NRC, and I'll contribute that to (its) legal defense fund.''

The gauge, which came in a yellow box resembling a cooler, is often used at construction sites to determine the moisture in materials, as well as the density of asphalt, soil and concrete. It does so by projecting radiation and measuring the time it takes to travel between two points.

On top of the container is a handle that is used to extend and retract the radiation sources from their shielded position.

As long as the sources are in the shielded position, the gauge isn't hazardous, Sheehan said. But if the sources are tampered with, they could expose the person to radiation. Handling the unshielded sources outside the container could carry a risk of potentially dangerous radiation exposure.

About 300 nuclear devices, including several similar to the gauge taken, are stolen in the United States each year. About half are recovered, Sheehan said.