Exporters Can Ship Nuclear Materials Abroad Without Federal Inspection

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A U.S. regulatory agency refuses to inspect organizations before allowing them to export nuclear materials such as uranium to foreign countries, a government watchdog reported Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulator Commission (NRC) gave organizations licenses to export nuclear materials without ever actually visiting the applicants’ sites, “even though one of NRC’s principal regulatory functions – oversight – consists of inspections and performance assessment,” the NRC Inspector General (IG) reported. (RELATED: ISIS Targeted Nuclear Reactor Getting Shipment Of Weapons-Grade Uranium)

“Without prelicensing site visits or inspections, NRC cannot confirm if export applicants are legitimate and does not have the assurance licensees are in compliance with export regulations,” the watchdog wrote.

Uranium intended for enrichment for nuclear power is one such export. Tracking these materials is essential to ensure that they are only used for peaceful purposes, given that enriched uranium is “the primary ingredient of an atomic weapon,” the report said.

NRC officials disagreed. (RELATED: Nuclear Agency’s Budget Doesn’t Get Cut — Even Though Its Workload Was)

Inspections “would be an inefficient and ineffective use of regulatory resources to exercise oversight,” NRC Acting Deputy Director Michael Weber wrote to the IG. “Visiting an office location only to verify that an export applicant has locks on doors and a filing cabinet for storage is unwarranted.”

Weber instead suggested focusing NRC’s efforts on evaluating an organization’s compliance after a license is issued.

“The purpose of the pre-licensing visits is to ensure the export applicant is a legitimate organization with a physical office that matches the address provided by the applicant,” the IG responded. “Furthermore, the ability to ask questions and obtain applicant information in-person while conducting the site visit would also enhance the prescreening process.”

“Conducting prelicensing site visits does not simply confirm the existence of an office, it exercises NRC’s oversight responsibility to obtain the assurance that entities will use an export license for its intended purpose and provides a basis for their credibility,” the report said. An NRC official told the IG “that once the export license is issued, OIP does not provide much oversight of the licensee.”

NRC issued 203 export licenses between 2011 and 2015, 14 of which were for material like uranium.

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