NRC aims to close gaps on nuke freight

WASHINGTON -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to impose new security requirements on radioactive material shipped across the USA that could be an inviting target for terrorists looking to build "dirty bombs."

The effort follows years of criticism from members of Congress, security experts and environmentalists who say that the commission hasn't done enough to secure potentially dangerous materials since 9/11 raised fears of attacks. The material is usually shipped to and from medical and industrial sites.

"It has taken far too long for the NRC to take action," says Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. "For years, we've seen reports of radiation leaks from FedEx packages, successful attempts to smuggle radioactive materials into the United States and incidents where these materials go missing for months."

The NRC, which regulates the nuclear industry and use of radioactive materials, says the security requirements being considered include contingency procedures if materials go missing, new safeguards for shipment information, new rules on advance notification of shipments and continuous tracking of shipments through the Global Positioning System and other technologies. The first of three public hearings on the issue is today.

The Homeland Security Department has pushed the NRC to move fast. Vayl Oxford, head of the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, says top officials want the NRC to impose federal rules because a patchwork of state laws compromises security. Now, he says, some states require shipments to be guarded by armed escorts while others require no escorts at all. "There is a vulnerability there."

And on tracking the material en route, FedEx "can tell you where a package is" at any time, Oxford says. "We ought to be able to do the same."

The federal government is particularly concerned about someone stealing or hijacking a truck carrying one of 16 radioactive materials that, in large enough quantities, could be used by terrorists to build radioactive dirty bombs. Some of the materials are used to build sensors and other high-tech gadgets. Others are used in cancer treatments.

The 9/11 attacks "made us all rethink how far someone would go to hurt the public," NRC transportation security team leader Adelaide Giantelli says. "No one wants this material to end up in the wrong hands."

Giantelli says there are security orders in place now but the new rules would be stricter. After this month's three hearings, officials will draft proposed regulations. Those will be done in 2009 and the new rules could take effect until 2010, Giantelli says.

Oxford says he understands that the NRC must go through a long regulatory process. Regardless, Homeland Security officials are "not happy with the timeline" for getting tighter federal security rules in place.