WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators have documented 1,300 cases of lost, stolen, or abandoned radioactive material inside the United States over the past five years and have concluded that there is a significant risk that terrorists could gather enough for a dirty bomb.
Studies by the Energy Department's Los Alamos laboratory and the General Accounting Office found significant holes in the nation's security that could take years to close, even after improvements by regulators since Sept. 11, 2001.
"The world of radiological sources developed prior to recent concerns about terrorism, and many of the sources are either unsecured or provided, at best, with an industrial level of security," the Los Alamos lab concluded two months ago in a report that was reviewed by the Associated Press.
The report concludes that the threat of a so-called dirty bomb that could disperse radiological materials across a wide area "appears to be very significant, and there is no shortage of radioactive materials that could be used." Security improvements underway "are unlikely to significantly alter the global risk picture for a few years," the report added.
The FBI has repeatedly warned law enforcement over the past year that Al Qaeda is interested in obtaining radiological materials and creating a dispersal bomb, most recently after authorities received an uncorroborated report a few weeks ago that Al Qaeda might be seeking material from a Canadian source.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman, Beth Hayden, said the agency recognizes the potential dangers of such materials and Al Qaeda's interest in them. "There are millions of sources," she said.
But Hayden added that most of the 1,300 lost radiological sources were subsequently recovered and that the public should keep the threat in perspective.
"The ones that have been lost and not recovered, I'm told, if you put them all together, it would not add up to one highly radioactive source," she said. "These are low-level sources."
The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee said the studies show that security efforts fall short of what is needed.
"Even though for years we have known of the threat that terrorists would use dirty bombs to attack the United States, I am alarmed at the government's inadequate response to this very real threat," said Representative Jim Turner, Democrat of Texas.