The potential for illicit transit of nuclear weapons and radiological materials that could be used to create a ‘dirty bomb’ not only looms large on the global political landscape, but also for the commercial ports on the frontlines of defense. Efforts have been largely focused on developing better detection technologies, but rapid response and surveillance methods are also gaining attention, as a second wave of radiation detection innovation is underway.
With the G8 placing the topic on the agenda, and a multilateral conference in Washington D.C. this April, sponsored by President Obama’s Administration, 2010 is shaping up to be an important year for nuclear security internationally.
The effort to secure ports from illicit transport of nuclear materials
Efforts to manage the large volume of maritime cargo are increasingly being coordinated on an inter-agency basis, which aim to recover errant nuclear materials with minimally invasive practices. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is coordinating with other agencies to employ a layered approach based on advanced intelligence, effective inspections, a secure port environment, and successful implementation of examination policies and procedures. An inspection process for weapons of mass destruction includes the screening of shipping information, nonintrusive inspections, physical examinations, efforts to mitigate ‘nuisance alarms’ and other methods for a cost-effective monitoring regime.
Getting at the sources far from US borders is the most effective means to reduce the risk of an attack, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). This focus on securing nuclear weapons and materials where they exist is known as the first line of defense. The NNSA’s Second Line of Defense Program (SLD) is also designed to protect the US from attack by a nuclear or radiological dispersal device, strengthening the capability of foreign governments to deter, detect, and interdict illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials across international borders and through the global maritime shipping system.
Through what is known as the Megaports Initiative, the NNSA works with foreign customs, port authorities, port operators, and/or other relevant entities in partner countries to enhance detection capabilities for special nuclear and other radioactive materials in containerized cargo. The Megaports Initiative is now operational at 27 ports around the world. Work is underway at additional ports in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
In addition to international effor ts, Megapor ts also collaborates with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s CBP and Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), as well as the U.S. Department of State. The collaboration counters nuclear and radiological threats to the U.S. and its international partners by installing radiation portal monitors that can be used by customs officers to scan high-risk U.S.-bound containers. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in December of 2009 that her department would be unable to meet a terrorism security measure’s 2012 deadline for checking all U.S.-bound ship cargo for WMD materials.
Radiation detection technologies have been in use for over 100 years. Their use as a homeland security tool, particularly in ports, is relatively new. According to Mick Truitt, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Ludlum Measurements, “Over the last century, detector technology has advanced from gas-filled tube detectors (like Geiger counters), to Scintillation Crystal detectors, and most recently solid-state semiconductor detectors. Despite these advances, port applications still face engineering challenges, due to geometry var iances and environmental factors.”
Some of the technologies just don't lend themselves to the task in ports because they are small and therefore do not pick up enough of the energy. Other technologies cannot be adapted to the harsh port environment. Some sensors only identify the presence of radiation, while other sensing technologies, combined with sophisticated electronics and software algorithms, can also identify the isotopes.
However, these technologies have run into significant challenges when it comes to large-scale deployment: proprietary and costly systems, accuracy, and reliability with existing security systems. Since 2006, DHS has sponsored testing to develop new monitor s, known as advanced spectroscopic portal (ASP) monitors, to replace radiation detection equipment currently being used at ports of entry.
ASPs may offer improvements over current generation portal monitors, particularly the potential to identify as well as detect radioactive material and thereby minimize both missed threats and nuisance alarms. However, ASPs cost significantly more than current generation portal monitors, and the time needed to identify isotopes threatens to slow cargo throughput, so testing of ASPs’ capabilities is not complete.