The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • A Nuclear 9/11: Can we Defeat Nuclear Terrorism by Securing the Ports?

    Posted on September 27th, 2010 Helian No comments

    In a word, no.  Anyone who wants to smuggle the key ingredients (highly enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium, otherwise known as special nuclear material, or SNM) needed to make a nuclear weapon into this country can easily do so, and the installation of any combination of the most sophisticated radiation dectection devices on the planet at our ports will do nothing to alter the fact.  The idea that lots of expensive detection equipment at our ports, or any other ports, will significantly reduce the terrorist nuclear danger is based on a fallacy:  that terrorists capable of securing enough SNM to build a bomb will be brain dead.  They would have to be brain dead to try to sneak SNM past sophisticated detectors when there are a virtually unlimited number of ways one could get it into the country without taking that risk.  It’s not necessary to smuggle a nuclear weapon in one piece.  It could be brought in broken down into small components and assembled at the target.  The SNM could be smuggled across our borders in pieces small enough to be virtually undetectable by backpackers, on commercially available mini-submarines, light aircraft, small pleasure boats, or what have you.  The SNM could then be assembled and easily fabricated into any desired weapons configuration in place.  The whole debate about defeating nuclear terrorism sounds like it’s being conducted in a lunatic asylum.

    For example, The Daily Caller (hattip Instapundit) cites a GAO report to the effect that, ”

    The nation’s ports and border crossings remain vulnerable to a nuclear 9/11 despite a $4 billion investment since 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on a number of programs aimed at preventing nuclear smuggling around the world.

    Senators similarly admonished DHS in a recent Senate hearing for failing to uphold its end of the bargain with the American people.

    “Terrorists have made clear their desire to secure a nuclear weapon,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said at the Sept. 15 hearing. “Given this stark reality, we must ask: what has the department done to defend against nuclear terrorism on American soil? The answer, unfortunately, is not enough… not nearly enough.”

    The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), responsible for the domestic aspect of DHS’s nuclear terror deterrence, received approximately half of the $4 billion investment, which it spent deploying over 1,400 radiation monitors at the nation’s seaports and border crossings in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

    But these radiation monitors have a serious flaw: they can only detect radiation from lightly shielded radiation sources.

    The only problem is that spending billions more to fix this “flaw” won’t help, unless you happen to have invested your nest egg in detection equipment.  The article continues,

    The GAO report uncovered a bureaucratic nightmare involving DNDO and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which resulted in the failure to properly develop and deploy detection equipment that could detect radiation from heavily shielded sources.

    DNDO began working shortly after its founding in April 2005 on what it called the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System (CAARS) and the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) ̶ intended to automatically detect radiation from heavily shielded sources in a user-friendly fashion in order to screen cargo containers in the nation’s ports and border crossings.

    In the first place, radiation detection equipment doesn’t come in just two flavors; “good for heavily shielded sources” and “not good for heavily shielded sources.”  There are a great number of different types, all with their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of sensitivity, energy resolution, etc.  In the second place, it doesn’t matter what kind are installed at the ports, because terrorists will simply bypass them.  The whole port security paradigm is based on the premise that our opponents, in spite of their ability to acquire SNM in the first place, will be bone stupid.  They won’t, and there are much more effective ways to spend all the money we are throwing down this particular rathole.

    The article goes on to cite Cato Institute budget analyst Tad DeHaven, who plays a familiar broken record to demagogue the sheep:

    They are not subject to market forces and other controls, so they can screw up federal money,” DeHaven said. “There are not going to be any angry shareholders, and in most cases you are not going to lose your job, so the incentives for the federal government to efficiently and effectively procure goods … are poor.”

    One wonders if he reallly gets paid to churn out such hackneyed stuff.  Tell me, Tad, do you actually know anything about the people who work for DNDO?  Did it ever occur to you that many of them might be ex-military, that they might be highly motivated and dedicated to their country’s welfare, and that it’s not out of the question that they care a great deal about working to “efficiently and effectively procure goods”?  You might actually try meeting and talking to some of them.  They work just down the street from you.  Did it ever occur to you that the problem might not be their lack of patriotism and dedication, but the fact that they’ve been given an impossible task?  And BTW, no, I don’t work for DNDO or DHS.

    The article concludes in a somewhat more sober vein,

    Heritage Foundation homeland security analyst Jena Baker-McNeill instead blames Congress for setting what she sees as an unrealistic goal of inspecting every container that passes through the nation’s ports and border crossings. Congress imposed the goal for political reasons without considering its practical implications, she said. Baker-McNeill believes more emphasis should have been placed on increased intelligence aimed at intercepting nuclear smugglers abroad due to the volume of cargo that enters the country and limited resources.

    It seems to me Ms. Baker-McNeill might be on to something.  If we’re going to spend money to defeat nuclear terrorism, I suspect it will be much better spent on finding ways to keep terrorists from getting their hands on SNM in the first place.  Once they do, we can install the most efficient radiation detectors with the most clever software ever devised at all our ports, and it won’t deter them in the slightest.  We will only have bought ourselves a dangerous sense of false security.

    Leave a reply