publicintegrity | The clandestine group’s goal was clear: Obtain the building blocks of a so-called radioactive “dirty bomb” – capable of poisoning a major city for a year or more – by openly purchasing the raw ingredients from authorized sellers inside the United States.
It should have been hard. The purchase of lethal radioactive materials – even modestly dangerous ones – requires a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a measure meant to keep them away from terrorists. Applicants must demonstrate they have a legitimate need and understand the NRC’s safety standards, and pass an on-site inspection of their equipment and storage.
But this secret group of fewer than 10 people – formed in April 2014 in North Dakota, Texas, and Michigan – discovered that getting a license and then ordering enough materials to make a “dirty bomb” was strikingly simple in one of their three tries. Sellers were preparing shipments that together were enough to poison a city center when the operation was shut down.
The team’s members could have been anyone – a terrorist outfit, emissaries of a rival government, domestic extremists. In fact, they were undercover bureaucrats with the investigative arm of Congress. And they’d pulled off the same stunt nine years before. Their fresh success has set off new alarms among some lawmakers and officials in Washington about risks that terrorists inside the United States could undertake a “dirty bomb” attack.
Here’s how they did it: