It’s the stuff of nightmares and thrillers. Terrorists detonate a dirty bomb at a US port and the nation plummets intochaos as the radioactive material spreads across dozens of square miles, resulting in thousands of lost lives and billions of dollars as the nation struggles to recuperate in the wake of the attack.
Although a dirty bomb attack on a US port would take a tremendous toll on the economic health and security of the nation, lawmakers have expressed concern the US is not doing enough to deter, detect and interdict potential security threats to the nation’s ports.
With that in mind, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation recently held a hearing to discuss the vulnerability of US ports to terrorist attacks using a dirty bomb, a type of radiological dispersal device (RDD) that combines conventional explosives such as dynamite with radioactive material like Cobalt 60.
Although terrorists have yet to launch a successful RDD attack on US soil, the threat is real and terrorists have shown an interest in RDDs. In his opening remarks before the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said in early October the Associated Press reported on FBI and Eastern European authorities’ efforts over the last five years to successfully interrupt four attempts by criminal gangs with suspected Russian ties to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists. And it’s not the first time jihadists have attempted to obtain radiological materials.
“The successful disruption of the sale was a positive result,” Hunter said. “However, the desire of our adversaries to obtain, at a minimum, materials for a dirty bomb, or even materials for a nuclear weapon are growing.”
Al Qaeda publications show terrorists consider an RDD attack because of its devastating economic and psychological consequences.
In August, three men — Dhiren Barot, Jose Padilla and Glendon Crawford — were convicted for attempting to develop and use an RDD in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere, according to the testimony of Charles Potter, distinguished member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories.
“Obtaining a clear picture of adversary planning is difficult, and it is it is prudent to assume that the necessary motive and intent exists,” Potter said. “Our duty then is to ensure that credible scenarios leading to high-consequence RDD attacks are made as difficult as possible to our potential adversaries.”
Current US efforts to protect ports from a dirty bomb attack
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials testified the agency currently employs a multi-layered approach to port security. CBP works closely with domestic and international partners to protect the nation’s ports and waterways, according to Todd Owen, CBP Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations.
Owen stated CBP’s approach includes 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 our 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 Ports of Entry, including the use of non-intrusive inspection equipment and radiation detection technologies.
Partnerships, in particular, are one of the most crucial elements of CBP’s risk-based strategy for port security. For example,since 9/11, the Customs-Trade Partnership against Terrorism (C-TPAT) has been an important tool supporting the nation’s efforts to secure the global supply chain while facilitating the secure and efficient flow of legitimate cargo.
Launched in November 2001, C-TPAT is a voluntary program in which CBP officials work with private companies to review the security of their supply chains and improve the security of their shipments to the United States. In return, C-TPAT partners receive various incentives, such as reduced scrutiny of their shipments.
Another international cargo security initiative used by CBP is the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which the agency established in 2002 with the sole purpose of preventing the use of maritime containerized cargo to transport a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) by ensuring all containers identified as potential risks for terrorism are inspected at foreign ports before they are placed on vessels destined for the United States.
“Each year, more than 11 million maritime containers arrive at our Nation’s air and seaports,” Owen said. “At our land borders, another 11 million arrive by truck and 2.7 million by rail. CBP’s targeting activities, in conjunction with programs like CSI and C-TPAT, increase CBP’s awareness of what is inside those containers, and enhance our capability to assess whether it poses a risk to the American people.”
“Working with our DHS, Federal, international, state, local, tribal and private industry partners, CBP’s cargo security programs help to safeguard the nation’s borders and ports from threats — including those posed by radiological weapons," Owen continued.
Is US prepared for a dirty bomb attack?
If a dirty bomb ends up in the wrong hands, our country is at grave risk. Consequently, stopping dirty bombs before they reach our shores must be a priority. However, current US efforts are not up to the task of preventing a determined adversary from targeting a US port with a dirty bomb, according to the Dr. Stephen Flynn, director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University.
According to Flynn, there is a real and present danger that containers will be used as modern-day Trojan horses. The reality is, no one really knows what is inside a container except those who are there when the container is packed, since CBP officials rely on the cargo manifest — which can easily be falsified –for this information.
In 2012, CBP admitted there could be a serious vulnerability within the US in-bond cargo program regarding the contents, access and whereabouts of in-bond cargo shipments. Moreover, a 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit found CBP has not assessed the risk posed by foreign ports that ship cargo to the United States for its Container Security Initiative program since 2005.
More recently, a GAO audit determined CBP has not been accurately recording the disposition of high-risk maritime shipments, which may be creating vulnerabilities in the supply chain.
Given the inadequacy of current efforts to secure the global supply chain from point of origin, Flynn believes the US should switch its emphasis from policing US-bound cargo to working with US trade partners and the private sector to monitor and validate the flow of legitimate global cargo.
“Should a dirty bomb that originated overseas be set off in a US port, it would represent a major security breech in the global supply system that will result in US port closures,” Flynn said. “This, in turn, will place the intermodal transportation system at risk of widespread economic disruption generating tens of billions of dollars in losses, and potentially endangering lives as the shipments of critical time-sensitive goods such as medical supplies and defense-related materials are interrupted.”
Flynn added that, “Since the current US container security programs are inadequate for addressing these stakes, the way ahead must involve a far more vigorous effort by the US government to provide incentives for US trade partners and private sector participants to share the responsibility for closely monitoring and validating the international flows of legitimate cargo and to develop robust contingency plans managing security incidents.”
Dr. James Giermanski, chairman of Powers International Inc., has expressed similar concerns to Homeland Security Today on multiple occasions. Giermanski believes current CBP efforts to secure the supply chain are merely “smoke and mirrors,” since the agency does not use off-the-shelf state-of-the-art technology to ensure containers remain secure from point of origin to destination.
Giermanski advocates the use of in-container tracking mechanisms which actually identify the person at origin who physical verifies the cargo, seals the container and triggers global monitoring all the way to origin, including any access to the container at transshipment ports. These mechanisms provide an auditable record of actual people and their behavior along with the integrity of the container itself.
Concerns regarding RDD attacks are not limited to detection. Potter expressed deep concerns over current US efforts to recover from an attack. Currently, there is no single US standard for post-cleanup radiation levels, making it difficult to estimate the costs that would be directly associated with decontamination.
“The RDD risk is real and multi-faceted, and the US government has implemented a number of programs to increase the security of US radiological materials and increase the difficulty of illicit movement of these materials, resulting in a reduced likelihood of an RDD attack,” Potter said. “However, there is still significant uncertainty in our understanding of the costs that would accrue after such an event.”
“The development of policies and technical capabilities for effective cleanup to allow for resumption of normal operations following an RDD attack would constitute an important element of the multi-dimensional, integrated solution for addressing the RDD threat,” Potter concluded.
100 percent scanning of cargo at US ports
During the hearing, Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) said although ports are the “economic engine” of the country, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks more time, effort and money has been devoted to airports than to the protection of US ports.
“When people ask me what keeps me up at night? A dirty bomb at the Port of Los Angeles, or Long Beach,” Hahn said. “Ships make 50,000 calls a year on our US ports. They carry 2 billion tons of freight, 134 million passengers — they are incredibly important and one dirty bomb at Long Beach, Los Angeles would be disastrous.”
Hahn also reiterated her call for 100 percent scanning of all cargo at US ports, noting that only 3 percent of the cargo shipped through US ports is scanned for contraband and dangerous materials, like explosive devices. Hahn recalled incidents in 2002 and 2003 where ABC News smuggled depleted uranium through the ports of New York and Long Beach and no one detected it.
As Homeland Security Today previously reported, Hahn introduced legislation last year that would require 100 percent scanning of cargo containers at domestic ports and would allow select ports to receive federal funding for advanced inspection technology to implement 100 percent scanning of shipping containers for radiological and nuclear material as well as other potentially dangerous material.
“I have said it once and I will say it again, we need 100 percent scanning at our ports,” Hahn said at the hearing. “The risks are too high not to.”
Congress has passed two pieces of legislation, the Security and Accountability For Every (SAFE) Port Act of 2006 and the Implementing Regulations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 requiring 100 percent scanning of incoming cargo at US ports. However, the mandate has yet to be implemented. The Department of Homeland Security missed the 2012 deadline, as well as another in 2014, and continues to delay its implementation of the policy due to a purported lack of resources.
Hahn stated another one of the biggest reasons cited for not implementing 100 percent screening is that it would slow down the flow of commerce and impede the economy. However, the congresswoman believes there is technology available that would not disrupt the flow of commerce.
In the June/July 2015 issue of Homeland Security Today, for instance, Dr. Gene W. Ray, CEO of Decision Sciences International Corporation (DSIC), indicated the 100 percent screening mandate can be met with the right technology. For example, DSIC has harnessed the natural power of muons — subatomic particles similar to electrons created by cosmic rays entering the Earth’s atmosphere — with its multiple mode passive detection system (MMPDS) for detecting materials in shipping containers and other types of conveyances.
The MMPDS technology can detect shielded and unshielded nuclear material, as well as explosives and contraband, such as tobacco. MMPDS, unlike an X-ray, can see into a dense object like lead to determine whether there is a threat. Moreover, the more muons going through, the better the system will be able to detect a potential threat.
Dr. Gregory Canavan, a senior fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratories, told the subcommittee technologies could be implemented that would not impede the flow of commerce. He testified that that compact, fast neutron detection systems can give confident detection of nuclear materials with low false alarms rates.
“Compact fast neutron inspection provides high-confidence detection of disseminated nuclear designs, materials and technologies on the time scale on which they could be integrated to take advantage of the large number of containers entering US ports," Canavan said. "They could be deployed on ships, ports, or at sea to support first line defense of the US against nuclear weapons in a manner consistent with the role of the Coast Guard.”