A U.S. Customs & Border Protection monitor drives down a row of containers at the Port of New York/Newark checking them for radiation. (Josh Denmark/CBP)

PERSPECTIVE: What’s Happening Behind Scenes to Thwart Radiological Attacks

Over the course of 2017, the global political landscape shifted significantly. More than one of the developments is likely to have heightened, rather than diminished, the concerns that another large-scale malicious attack on U.S. soil is looming. Just three months ago, a man detonated a pipe bomb in the New York City subway system near Times Square. Thankfully, the explosion did not result in deaths, though a handful of minor injuries were reported. While this appears to be an isolated and amateurish incident, it once more highlights the alarming and potentially tragic consequences of terrorism.

Yet despite tensions growing year by year, our nation has not suffered a single casualty in an act of radiological terrorism. As a reminder, the threat could come in the form of a strong radioactive source the size of a pencil hidden in a packed stadium, invisibly exposing crowds to the point of acute radiation sickness. Or, it could be a rogue nation, whose ballistic missiles might not be quite as reliable as a shipping container destined for Los Angeles.

The absence of radiological attacks on the U.S. homeland is not entirely coincidental. Behind the scenes, a monumental effort is being carried out by multiple U.S. and international agencies. They are working to prevent some deeply troubling scenarios from jeopardizing our way of life. A multi-layered defense has successfully protected U.S. citizens from a radiological attack.  Even as the sophistication of terrorist organizations increases rapidly, the government uses technology – including new and emerging technologies – and intelligence to remain one step ahead in this race.

Mitigating threats at the source

In July 2017, the Washington Post published an article on how ISIS nearly stumbled upon the ingredients for a “dirty bomb.” Indeed, over a prolonged period of time Daesh’s territorial control of Mosul made them the unknowing owner of more than one strong radioactive source. It would have taken little skill to repurpose these sources into daunting radiological weapons of terror.

Obviously, Mosul is not the only place on earth where strong radioactive sources exist. Just about every country in the world has strong radioactive sources. Add to that the presence of nuclear material – uranium and plutonium – that if processed the right way are the key ingredients to yield nuclear weapons.

Yet despite the abundance of these radiological threats, we have remained safe from their effects. The United States has worked with international partners to reduce this risk in many ways, starting with reducing the number of such threats and cataloging the ones that cannot be avoided. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the Department of Energy has helped foreign governments secure some of the most dangerous of these materials at the sites where they are stored. Adding onto that a second layer of protection, the NNSA has helped deploy radiation detection equipment to the borders of vulnerable countries, for instance at the periphery of the former Soviet Union. And in yet another building block of this global nuclear detection architecture, radiation detection equipment is installed in most modern seaports, monitoring U.S.-bound maritime containers for radiological signatures.

Regardless of our best-laid plans, we must still assume that nefarious actors will be able to move illicit material to their target location. But the knowledge and logistics necessary to evade the many layers of this detection-net forces adversaries to inform themselves and to plan. Such communication in turn increases the digital footprint of nefarious actors that intelligence services can target.

Prevent at points of entry

Almost every truck or maritime container entering the U.S. passes through a so-called Radiation Portal Monitor (RPM). These highly sensitive systems are mounted on either side of traffic lanes 12 feet high; tall enough to monitor vehicles in their full height. Well over a thousand such devices are installed at the northern land border, the southern land border, and at the seaports of both coasts. The Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (C-WMD) office (until recently, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office) is currently running a technology evaluation with the goal of replacing many of the aged existing RPMs with cutting-edge technology.

The new technology will have a particular emphasis on cybersecurity. While older generations of systems had been integrated in a cyber-secure manner, the new systems will be cyber-hardened by design. A higher degree of network integration will result in lower manpower needs of the new systems, allowing personnel tied up babysitting the current systems to be deployed in more effective ways. The new RPMs will have benefited from novel technologies developed over the last decade, making them significantly lower cost to acquire and operate than earlier generations were. Above all, the new systems will be more precise in being able to differentiate between actual threats and benign sources of radiation, an important economic factor. In June 2017, the port at Charleston, S.C., was shut down for hours after a potential “dirty bomb” was suspected upon a docked freighter. Though that particular threat never materialized, it highlighted that even the credible threat of a weapon, without the weapon itself, can have a grave economic impact.

Protect citizens at the local level

The federal government has been supporting state and local authorities in their efforts to protect important cities. In Washington, for example, Metro Transit Police officers are in the process of being outfitted with portable radiation detectors to identify potential dirty bomb threats. Similar efforts are underway in major cities that terrorists are likely to view as high-value targets.

Historically, the detection of radiation has relied on equipment that tended to generate too many false alarms to be practical in public spaces. Moving forward, technology has advanced to the point that scalable, highly efficient detectors can be used in concert with pager-sized devices to improve the possibility of finding a source in a large area.

The combination of static and mobile detection, when used in conjunction with data analytics, enabled by the growth of ubiquitous cloud computing, can increase the success of detection as it reduces the overall cost to conduct radiological searches. By affording more radiation detectors that can be interconnected, the United States can develop revolutionary ways of identifying threats, and therefore preventing attacks and protecting U.S. citizens.

Developing the future of radiation detection

With the help of next-generation radiation detection systems, government agencies including DHS can identify, prevent, and protect against incoming threats caused by radioactive and nuclear materials. Once radiation detection systems have been successfully integrated, regular testing will help strengthen the agency’s detection capabilities and overall preparedness.

A lot has been invested into building the global nuclear detection architecture, parts of which have been described above. Given that the general public has remained safe from radiological attacks, the strategy of layered protection appears to have served us well. Despite the overwhelming number of radiological threats present in the world, such weapons have not been turned against us. And through continuous investment into development of new technology and deployment of reliable systems, the government has managed to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

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Dr. Rico Chandra, CEO and co-founder of Arktis Radiation Detectors, has a PhD from ETH Zurich, awarded for his work in dark matter detector R&D at CERN, Geneva. His experience includes consulting work performed for the European Commission in security questions, strategic consulting of several SMEs, and technology consulting as a council member of the Gerson Lehrman Group.

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