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Guarding the U.S. Against Nuclear Smuggling Threats

By MarEx 2016-07-08 19:38:34

The use of a high-yield improvised nuclear bomb in a major U.S. city could cause hundreds of thousands of fatalities, and the use of a dirty bomb would not only cause a large loss of human life, but would be a destabilizing force that could have global social and economic impacts.

These are the words of Anne Harrington, Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, in her testimony given this week to the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Hearing on the nuclear smuggling threats face by the U.S.

Terrorist groups have sought nuclear and radiological materials and the expertise needed to weaponize them, she says. More than 30 countries currently possess weapons-useable nuclear material stored at hundreds of sites, with the largest inventory in Russia. 

Radiological materials are ubiquitous, with more than 100 countries possessing radiological material stored at thousands of sites. Despite much progress over the past 20 years by international cooperative programs to improve the security of these materials, gaps remain.

In addition, unknown quantities of material may already be out of regulatory control. Recent examples of interdictions in countries like Georgia and Moldova, demonstrates this, says Harrington. “Russia’s decision to halt most of our nuclear security cooperation leads to a concern that security controls on material in Russia are weakening.” 

Harrington also points to a growing number of ungoverned spaces that create safe havens for terrorists. 

It seems clear that Islamic extremists aspire to carry out a radiological attack, so this is a threat we need to take seriously, said Subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) in his opening remarks. “If they succeed even once, the consequences would be catastrophic.” 

After 9/11, security measures were enacted to better protect our homeland by expanding efforts to detect and deter threats overseas. “Despite these efforts, I remain concerned that we are still not employing the best technology to detect the presence of nuclear or radiological material in containerized cargo.”

Customs and Border Protection Across the Supply Chain

Duncan heard testimony from Todd Owen, Executive Assistant Commissioner with the Office of Field Operations at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Department of Homeland Security. Owen highlighted that as the lead Department of Homeland Security agency for border security, CBP’s approach incorporates three layered elements to improve supply chain integrity, promote economic viability and increase resilience across the entire global supply chain system:

•    Advance Information and Targeting. Obtaining information about cargo, vessels and persons involved early in the shipment process and using advanced targeting techniques to increase domain awareness and assess the risk of all components and factors in the supply chain;
•    Government and Private Sector Collaboration. Enhancing federal and private sector partnerships and collaborating with foreign governments to extend enforcement efforts outward to points earlier in the supply chain; and
•    Advanced Detection Equipment and Technology. Maintaining robust inspection regimes at points of entry including the use of non-intrusive inspection equipment and radiation detection technologies.

Technologies deployed to land, sea and air points of entry include large-scale X-ray and Gamma-ray imaging systems as well as a variety of portable and handheld technologies. CBP currently has 307 large-scale non-intrusive inspection systems deployed to, and in between, U.S. points of entry. 

Radiation detection equipment used to scan 100 percent of all mail and express consignment mail and parcels; 100 percent of all truck cargo, 100 percent of personally owned vehicles arriving from Canada and Mexico and nearly 100 percent of all arriving sea-borne containerized cargo for the presence of radiological or nuclear materials.

If dangerous materials or weapons arrive, CBP has established contingency plans to ensure a coordinated and effective response, and CBP's aviation assets maintain an emergency response capability.

“A dirty bomb uses common explosives to spread radioactive materials over a targeted area. It is not a nuclear blast,” says Owen. “The force of the explosion and radioactive contamination will be more localized. While the blast will be immediately obvious, the presence of radiation will not be known until trained personnel with specialized equipment are on the scene. As with any radiation, frontline personnel are trained to limit the risk and effects of exposure by finding a shielding object, increasing their distance from the blast, and minimizing exposure time. Personnel will also work with local HAZMAT to cordon off a perimeter and assist with the decontamination process.”

The U.S. Coast Guard Remains Alert

Rear Admiral Linda Fagen, Deputy for Operations Policy and Capabilities at the U.S. Coast Guard, highlighted that the evolution and proliferation of advanced commercial, military and dual-use technology, combined with increased availability and sophistication of transportation and delivery systems, creates new opportunities for transnational and domestic terrorist groups to employ weapons of mass destruction to conduct catastrophic attacks against the United States. 

“The Coast Guard, in coordination with joint, interagency and international partners, prepares for a range of contingencies that would accompany a weapon of mass destruction threat or event. Coast Guard forces contribute to a layered defense around the homeland. They help provide early detection of a weapon of mass destruction threat in the maritime domain and assist response to maritime terrorist events that may involve a weapon of mass destruction threat aboard a vessel approaching the United States. 

“Coast Guard’s major cutters are designed to protect onboard personnel from the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) materials and agents and conduct critical post-attack operations in a CBRN environment.

“The Coast Guard conducts over 400 routine inspections and general law enforcement boardings every day to ensure that vessels comply with international maritime law and safety standards, applicable U.S. law and regulations, and any control procedures required to access the nation’s ports. Every Coast Guard member who visits a boat, vessel or regulated facility carries a basic detection device designed to alert the user to the presence of radiation.”

New Detection Technologies

Dr Wayne Brasure, Acting Director, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), spoke to the Subcommittee of some of the developments in detection technology. DNDO procures large-scale fixed radiation detection systems and small mobile devices.

To augment the U.S. Coast Guard’s ability to identify a radionuclide that has been detected, DNDO recently procured a new technology called Human Portable Tripwire. These small, wearable devices enable faster detection and identification of nuclear and other radioactive sources.

DNDO has also acquired Small Vessel Standoff Detection portable nuclear detection equipment for use by the Coast Guard and CBP staff to increase the probability of detecting threats onboard small vessels when encountering such vessels. 

To ensure operational partners, including those in the maritime environment, are prepared to respond to a threat, DNDO dispatches a unique “red team” to challenge fielded capabilities using specialized nuclear and other radioactive sources and scenarios. DNDO supports maritime partners by conducting overt and covert assessments of operations by intentionally introducing radioactive sources and mock devices against deployed defenses to evaluate the performance of fielded technology, training and protocols.

A Multi-faceted approach

The various testimonies spoke of the need for a layered approach. “Because the threat is so complex and continuously evolving and the physical, economic and psychological consequences of terrorists using a nuclear or radiological device are so high, significant resources and a multifaceted and layered approach must be employed to counter the threat,” said Harrington of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

While the scanning of inbound containers at U.S. ports and border crossings is extremely important, the effectiveness of the systematic approach to detection is significantly strengthened by international efforts that extend detection away from U.S. soil. “If an actual improvised nuclear device or radiological dispersal device reaches the U.S. shores, the detection may be too late to avoid its catastrophic consequences.”