Ending the nightmare scenario

The thought of a nuclear bomb smuggled into the United States and detonated in an American city haunted counterterrorists and security experts well before Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, addressing this threat has taken on increased urgency.
The White House’s fiscal budget proposal for fiscal 2006 would create the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It will be responsible for developing a domestic system to discover any nuclear or radiological material transported into or assembled in the United States.
“This budget will allocate $227 million to support the efforts of the new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. DNDO will devote resources to developing and deploying the technology to detect nuclear material and, in so doing, counter one of the most dangerous threats we face,” said Acting Homeland Security Secretary James Loy while reviewing budget highlights on Feb. 7.
DNDO will provide DHS with a role in preventing nuclear terrorism. It will “develop, acquire and support” any deployments and improvements of technology that can detect and alert authorities to nuclear, fissile or radiological materials, according to the DHS Budget-in-Brief for Fiscal 2006.
Specialists from DHS, the FBI and the departments of Defense and Energy will staff the office, which will coordinate its activities with the intelligence community, the departments of Justice and State and other departments, as necessary.
Loy explained that the DNDO will deploy existing nuclear and radiological sensors, while consolidating research and development efforts for the next generation of sensors.
Charles McQueary, undersecretary of Homeland Security for Science and Technology, told the House Science Committee on Feb. 16 that the capabilities developed at DNDO would provide other agencies with the ability to detect nuclear materials globally.
“Although the DNDO is principally focused on domestic detection, its coordinating work will enhance US efforts overseas through the design of a global architecture implemented under current agency responsibilities,” McQueary said. “The new investments will speed the development and improvement of equipment and protocols, much of which will be applicable overseas.”
Charles Ferguson, a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of the book The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism, suggested that DNDO could be an effective part of a broad strategy to stop the shipment of nuclear materials worldwide.
“Can we trace nuclear material back to its nation or point of origin? Can we then have a retaliatory capability? Can we then have the ability to deter the spread of nuclear material? It ties into the larger question of nuclear detection and nuclear forensics to determine attribution,” Ferguson told HSToday.
Existing and new efforts
Of the $227 million President Bush is budgeting for the office, about $114 million represents new funding. The rest of the money comes from reprogrammed existing nuclear non-proliferation funds in other federal offices.
DNDO will pick up many existing initiatives from other federal agencies, state and local governments and the private sector, while keeping up with international nuclear and radiological detection efforts, according to the DHS Budget-in-Brief.
“The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is an office that will be created as a national joint effort and housed in the Department of Homeland Security for the nation across the board, the whole notion of doing two things and doing two things extraordinarily well,” Loy said. “First of all, deploying the capability we have to detect those nuclear materials today to optimize their deployment, and secondly, then, to put a fence around dollars attended to transforming that capability toward a next-generation R&D effort. Those two things are going to be housed inside that office and be directed from our department,” he added.
The DHS Budget-in-Brief describes some of the new tasks of the DNDO, noting that the office will coordinate the development of a national domestic nuclear detection architecture, research and develop new ways to detect nuclear and radiological materials, and set up training and protocols for anyone who would use equipment that comes from the new office.
DNDO would receive authority over portions of efforts already underway. For example, the budget examines a range of projects ongoing under a portfolio of programs to thwart radiological and nuclear threats. The Radiological-Nuclear Countermeasures Portfolio, spread throughout federal, state and local governments, aims to stop any radiological material from entering the United States or any transport of it inside the United States.
The “premier example” of these projects is a pilot program at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closely coordinated with the Border and Transportation and Science and Technology directorates at DHS.
This fiscal year, that testbed will prototype sensors that include a neutron sensor and a combination neutron/ gamma detector for large areas. Other resources will boost the distance at which port facilities can detect radiation and their ability to scan cargo containers.
Specific initiatives
McQueary explained the structure of the DNDO to Congress in his Feb. 16 testimony.
“The DNDO mission will be carried out through an organization that includes a director supported by five major offices: Systems Engineering and Planning; Systems Development and Acquisition; Assessments; Joint Center for Global Connectivity; and Transformational Research & Development,” he said. “These offices would be staffed jointly by appropriate agencies.”
The DNDO budget includes $125 million to purchase radiation portal monitors and prototype the development of improved monitors for the detection of gamma and neutron radiation. DNDO will develop the acquisition strategy for these radiation portal monitors, which include advanced spectroscopic portal systems, according to the budget.
The bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will use the monitors at borders to uncover technology used in weapons of mass destruction. Specifically, the agency will screen trucks and other vehicles for any sign of radiological materials. Under the budget plan, CBP will also collaborate with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate to start a trial of next-generation detectors.
The budget will dedicate an additional $7 million to enhanced radiological and nuclear detection capabilities that will fulfill DNDO objectives and the White House Proliferation Security Initiative. These capabilities include boosting the detection and response abilities of Maritime Safety and Security Teams in Chesapeake, Va., New Orleans, and San Diego. They also include placing specific emitter identifier (SEI) devices on the US Coast Guard’s 378- and 270-foot cutter fleets to increase identification of vessels that may harbor radiological and nuclear threats.
The money for boosting radiological and nuclear detection capabilities also enhances the Coast Guard Strike Teams’ abilities to handle those threats.
Ferguson told HSToday that nuclear detection capabilities are more effective when coupled with detectors for dense objects, such as lead, used to shield nuclear material and for chemical explosives.
“Shielding can make it difficult to detect fissile materials, but it increases the possibility of detecting dense objects,” Ferguson noted. “And checking for chemical explosives may also help detect an improvised nuclear device in a container. Shielding can hide the nuclear material, but chemical explosion detection may catch TNT or whatever other material might be used for exploding a nuclear device.”
In fact, the DNDO plans to test the effectiveness of its systems. The office will include a Radiological/Nuclear Countermeasures Test and Evaluation Complex, funded at $9 million in fiscal 2006. The complex will have responsibility for validating the nuclear and radiological detection systems deployed and under development.
The test and evaluation complex will be located at the Nevada Test Site and provide a facility that it does not presently possess, the budget says. The center will use “strategic quantities” of nuclear materials in realistic scenarios to test the effectiveness of detectors.
The establishment of the DNDO will make DHS a player in nuclear nonproliferation efforts, which Bush has called his top security priority.
“The inclusion in the budget of funding for a new office to coordinate the detection of nuclear materials before they can be used to attack America is critically important. Terrorists may already have acquired nuclear materials,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) in a statement on the budget.
But it’s also important that DHS effectively use the resources already deployed to fight nuclear terrorism.
“The physics of nuclear detection haven’t changed, but there have been great strides in engineering,” Ferguson said. “How much are they relying upon the national laboratories to marry people with the deep knowledge of physics to the people with the deep knowledge of the equipment to create smaller detectors that are rugged and more portable for scanning containers?” HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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