Combating Nuclear Terrorism:

Federal Efforts to Respond to Nuclear and Radiological Threats and to Protect Emergency Response Capabilities Could Be Strengthened

GAO-06-1015: Published: Sep 21, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 21, 2006.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) maintains an emergency response capability to quickly respond to potential nuclear and radiological threats in the United States. This capability has taken on increased significance after the attacks of September 11, 2001, because there is heightened concern that terrorists may try to detonate a nuclear or radiological device in a major U.S. city. This report discusses (1) the capabilities and assets DOE has to prevent and respond to potential nuclear and radiological attacks in the United States, (2) the physical security measures in place at DOE's two key emergency response facilities and whether they are consistent with DOE guidance, and (3) the benefits of using DOE's aerial background radiation surveys to enhance emergency response capabilities.

DOE has unique capabilities and assets to prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological attack in the United States. These include specialized teams to search for, locate, and deactivate nuclear or radiological devices and to help manage the consequences of a nuclear or radiological attack. These capabilities are primarily found at DOE's two key emergency response facilities--the Remote Sensing Laboratories at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. DOE's two Remote Sensing Laboratories are protected at the lowest level of physical security allowed by DOE guidance because, according to DOE, capabilities and assets to prevent and respond to nuclear and radiological emergencies have been dispersed across the country and are not concentrated at the laboratories. However, we found a number of critical capabilities and assets that exist only at the Remote Sensing Laboratories and whose loss would significantly hamper DOE's ability to quickly prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological emergency. These capabilities include the most highly trained teams for minimizing the consequences of a nuclear or radiological attack and the only helicopters and planes that can readily help locate nuclear or radiological devices or measure contamination levels after a radiological attack. Because these capabilities and assets have not been fully dispersed, current physical security measures may not be sufficient for protecting the facilities against a terrorist attack. There are significant benefits to conducting aerial background radiation surveys of U.S. cities. Specifically, the surveys can be used to compare changes in radiation levels to (1) help detect radiological threats in U.S. cities more quickly and (2) measure contamination levels after a radiological attack to assist in and reduce the costs of cleanup efforts. Despite the benefits, only one major city has been surveyed. Neither DOE nor the Department of Homeland Security has mission responsibility for conducting these surveys, and there are no plans to conduct additional surveys.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendations, in May 2008, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), completed an assessment of the costs, benefits, and limitations of aerial background radiation surveys. DHS then posted this assessment on its Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), which is a computer-based communications system that provides information to all authorized state and local government officials on counterterrorism and homeland security programs and activities. State and local government officials can obtain information about the surveys through this site. Putting this information on the HSIN increased awareness of state and local government officials that they can use homeland security grant money to fund the surveys if they decide that their city or state would benefit from a survey. Furthermore, in January 2008, NNSA and DHS began a pilot project with government and law enforcement officials from Chicago to explore ways to outfit helicopters owned by state governments with radiation detection equipment. They also offered training on how to conduct aerial background radiation surveys in April and May of 2008 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that all capabilities and assets are available and used to prevent or minimize the consequence of a nuclear or radiological attack, if the Administrator of NNSA and the Secretary of Homeland Security determine that the surveys would help prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological attack, the Secretaries should work together to develop a strategy for making greater use of the aerial surveys. In developing this strategy, the Secretary of Homeland Security should consider (1) the costs and benefits of funding these surveys through its existing grant program for state and local governments or through other means and (2) ways to inform state and local government officials about the benefits and limitations of aerial background radiation surveys so that these government officials can make their own decision about whether they would benefit from the surveys.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, in May 2008, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), completed an assessment of the benefits and limitations of aerial background radiation surveys that will be distributed to state and local government officials. In addition, since NNSA and DHS concluded that conducting more surveys would help prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological attack, in January 2008, they began a pilot project with government and law enforcement officials from Chicago to explore ways to outfit helicopters owned by state governments with radiation detection equipment. Training on how to conduct aerial background radiation surveys were completed in April and May of 2008 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that all capabilities and assets are available and used to prevent or minimize the consequence of a nuclear or radiological attack, the Administrator of NNSA and the Secretary of Homeland Security should evaluate the costs, benefits, and limitations of conducting aerial background radiation surveys of metropolitan areas, especially those that are considered to be most at risk of a terrorist attack; determine whether they would help prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological attack; and report the results to the Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, in May 2008, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), completed an assessment of the benefits and limitations of aerial background radiation surveys that will be distributed to state and local government officials. In addition, since NNSA and DHS concluded that conducting more surveys would help prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological attack, in January 2008, they began a pilot project with government and law enforcement officials from Chicago to explore ways to outfit helicopters owned by state governments with radiation detection equipment. Training on how to conduct aerial background radiation surveys were completed in April and May of 2008 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that all capabilities and assets are available and used to prevent or minimize the consequence of a nuclear or radiological attack, the Administrator of NNSA and the Secretary of Homeland Security should evaluate the costs, benefits, and limitations of conducting aerial background radiation surveys of metropolitan areas, especially those that are considered to be most at risk of a terrorist attack; determine whether they would help prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological attack; and report the results to the Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) maintains an emergency response capability to quickly respond to potential nuclear and radiological threats in the United States. In a September 2006 report entitled Combating Nuclear Terrorism: Federal Efforts to Respond to Nuclear and Radiological Threats and to Protect Emergency Response Capabilities Could Be Strengthened (GAO-06-1015), GAO found that NNSA had a number of critical capabilities and assets that exist only at two key emergency response facilities--the Remote Sensing Laboratories at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. Their loss would significantly hamper DOE's ability to quickly prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological emergency. In addition, because the capabilities and assets at these facilities had not been fully dispersed, physical security measures may not have been sufficient for protecting the facilities against a terrorist attack. To address these concerns, GAO recommended that the Administrator of NNSA review the physical security measures at the Remote Sensing Laboratories and determine whether additional measures should be taken to protect the facilities against a loss of critical emergency response capabilities or whether it was more cost-effective to fully disperse its capabilities and assets to multiple areas of the country. In response to our recommendation, the Administrator tasked the Associate Administrator for Emergency Response and the Associate Administrator for Defense Nuclear Security to review the physical security measures at the two laboratories. Their independent reviews concluded that security at those facilities was adequate and that it was not cost effective to further disperse emergency response capabilities to other facilities.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that all capabilities and assets are available and used to prevent or minimize the consequence of a nuclear or radiological attack, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), who implements the emergency response program within DOE, should review the physical security measures at the Remote Sensing Laboratories and determine whether additional measures should be taken to protect the facilities against a loss of critical emergency response capabilities or whether it is more cost-effective to fully disperse its capabilities and assets to multiple areas of the country.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendations, in May 2008, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), in consultation with the Departement of Homeland Security (DHS), completed an assessment of the costs, benefits, and limitations of aerial background radiation surveys. DHS then posted this assessment on its Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), which is a computer-based communications system that provides information to all authorized state and local government officials on counterterrorism and homeland security programs and activities. State and local government officials can obtain information about the surveys through this site. Putting this information on the HSIN increased awareness of state and local government officials that they can use homeland security grant money to fund the surveys if they decide that their city or state would benefit from a survey. Furthermore, in January 2008, NNSA and DHS began a pilot project with government and law enforcement officials from Chicago to explore ways to outfit helicopters owned by state governments with radiation detection equipment. They also offered training on how to conduct aerial background radiation surveys in April and May of 2008 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that all capabilities and assets are available and used to prevent or minimize the consequence of a nuclear or radiological attack, if the Administrator of NNSA and the Secretary of Homeland Security determine that the surveys would help prevent and respond to a nuclear or radiological attack, the Secretaries should work together to develop a strategy for making greater use of the aerial surveys. In developing this strategy, the Secretary of Homeland Security should consider (1) the costs and benefits of funding these surveys through its existing grant program for state and local governments or through other means and (2) ways to inform state and local government officials about the benefits and limitations of aerial background radiation surveys so that these government officials can make their own decision about whether they would benefit from the surveys.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

 

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