Nuclear Nonproliferation:

U.S. and International Assistance Efforts to Control Sealed Radioactive Sources Need Strengthening

GAO-03-638: Published: May 16, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 16, 2003.

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Sealed radioactive sources, radioactive material encapsulated in stainless steel or other metal, are used worldwide in medicine, industry, and research. These sealed sources pose a threat to national security because terrorists could use them to make "dirty bombs." GAO was asked to determine (1) the number of sealed sources worldwide and how many have been reported lost, stolen, or abandoned; (2) the controls, both legislative and regulatory, used by countries that possess sealed sources; and (3) the assistance provided by the Department of Energy (DOE) and other U.S. federal agencies to strengthen other countries' control over sealed sources and the extent to which these efforts are believed to be effectively implemented.

The precise number of sealed sources in use is unknown because many countries do not systematically account for them. However, nearly 10 million sealed sources exist in the United States and the 49 countries responding to a GAO survey. There is also limited information about the number of sealed sources that have been lost, stolen, or abandoned, but it is estimated to be in the thousands worldwide. Many of the most vulnerable sealed sources that could pose a security risk are located in the countries of the former Soviet Union. All of the 49 countries that responded to GAO's survey reported that they have established legislative or regulatory controls over sealed sources. However, nuclear safety and security experts from DOE, the Departments of State and Defense, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Commission told GAO that countries' controls over sealed sources vary greatly and are weakest among less developed countries. In fiscal year 2002, DOE established a program focusing on improving the security of sealed sources in the former Soviet Union and has started to fund security upgrades in Russia and other former Soviet countries. The Departments of Defense and State and NRC also have programs to help countries strengthen controls over sealed sources. DOE plans to expand its program to other countries and regions in 2003 and is developing a plan to guide its efforts. However, the department has not fully coordinated its efforts with NRC and the Department of State to ensure that a government-wide strategy is established. In addition, as of January 2003, the majority of DOE's program expenditures totaling $8.9 million were spent by DOE's national laboratories in the United States.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy (working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration) should develop a comprehensive program plan for helping other countries secure sealed sources that includes (1) a unified set of program goals and priorities, including a well-defined plan for meeting these goals in the countries to be included; (2) program cost estimates; (3) time frames for effectively spending program funds; (4) performance measures; (5) ways to sustain upgrades to the facilities and equipment financed, including cost estimates; and (6) an exit strategy for each country, including a plan for transferring responsibilities to the host country for building and equipment maintenance. The plan should be flexible and updated periodically to ensure that long-term efforts are sustainable.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE/NNSA informed GAO that they concurred with this recommendation and have developed such a plan that takes into consideration the major priorities and elements that GAO pointed out in the report. This information was obtained from the Office of Global Threat Reduction and the September 30, 2003 letter from Linton Brooks, Administrator, NNSA to NRE (Robin Nazzaro).

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy (working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration) should take the lead in developing a comprehensive government-wide plan to strengthen controls over other countries' sealed sources. The plan should be developed in conjunction with the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, and the Chairman of NRC. In addition, this plan should be coordinated with the International Atomic Energy Agency to avoid overlap or duplication of effort.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DOE/NNSA, efforts have been made to develop a unified program plan to address international efforts to help improve controls over sealed radioactive sources.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy (working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration) should strengthen efforts to increase program expenditures in the countries requiring the assistance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation has largely been implemented according to DOE/NNSA. As the RDD program matures, greater spend ratios are being shifted towards expenditures overseas. NNSA's Administrator noted this in his response to GAO's recommendations dated September 30, 2004.

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