Nuclear Smuggling: Detection Challenges & Hasty Acquisition

The detection, prevention, and combating of radiological and/or nuclear (rad/nuc) smuggling is a daunting responsibility. The United States has long led the world in protecting its own rad/nuc assets from theft, diversion, and attack. Protecting the U.S. homeland, though, from rad/nuc attacks – by terrorists and other non-state actors – is a relatively recent and more difficult mission. The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) leads the interagency effort in protecting U.S. borders. Despite considerable improvement in numerous operational areas since 11 September 2001, however, several difficult challenges remain, particularly in the detection of rad/nuc materials.

Recognizing the ease by which terrorists could use the global supply chain to introduce rad/nuc materials into the United States, Congress authorized DHS in 2005 to create the current Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), which is responsible for providing agencies involved in the effort to combat rad/nuc smuggling with the latest technological solutions needed to carry out that mission. Early detection, of course, is an essential aspect of the DNDO’s goal of building a “nuclear detection architecture” for combating rad/nuc smuggling.

For over 10 years, the primary radiological detection systems deployed in U.S. Ports of Entry (POEs) have been Radiation Portal Monitors (RPMs), installed in both fixed and portable configurations. According to DHS, CBP now deploys an estimated 1,400 RPMs at over 300 POEs. The United States has long recognized the potential rad/nuc threat posed by the easy availability, in hundreds of ports throughout the world, of international shipping containers, which for decades have been used for the smuggling of illegal immigrants, weapons, drugs, and other illicit materials. (DHS recently reported, though, that nearly, but not quite, 100 percent of the shipping containers entering the United States are now being screened.)

Shielding Limitations and Other Factors Widely used RPM technology is much less effective, however, at detecting radiological materials that are “shielded” in one way or another. CBP uses RPM detection as a primary screening method for vehicles and containers entering the United States through POEs. When an RPM alarm activates, the vehicle becomes subject to a secondary and more thorough screening inspection. Nonetheless, because of certain limitations of the RPM technologies predominantly used in primary screening, shielded rad/nuc materials could pass through that the POE screening would not detect.

Advanced radiographic imaging is fairly effective at detecting materials density – the measurement of which may be indicative of shielded rad/nuc smuggling. For that reason, CBP and other agencies today make limited use of advanced radiography (and associated algorithms) to enhance the secondary screening process, but rarely use it as a primary screening measure.

Nonetheless, in 2005, DNDO began exploring – in its Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System (CAARS) – the viability of expanding the development and use of advanced radiography. The CAARS initiative, which carried an estimated $1.5 billion price tag, was expected to enhance the CBP’s primary screening processes, thereby at least partially closing (in theory) the gap in entry detection of heavily shielded rad/nuc materials.

Balancing Security and Commerce Clearly, CBP’s mission requires a constant balance between maintaining security and facilitating U.S. access to the global supply chain. The Government Accountability Office recently issued a statement for the record to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in which the GAO cited an apparent lack of interagency coordination and communication between DNDO and CBP over the viability, safety, and effectiveness of using CAARS technology for widespread rad/nuc primary screening.

At least partly as a result of CBP’s objection that the CAARS program’s advanced radiographic scanning might have an adverse impact on already overcrowded POE egress, DNDO decided in 2007 on a “course correction” that significantly scaled back the acquisition and deployment of advanced radiographic technologies.

Three years later, DNDO seems to be no closer to providing CBP with a viable solution for advanced radiographic imaging that balances the need for security with the efficient movement of vehicles and goods through the nation’s ports.

A key requirement for CBP application in primary screening is swift and automatic detection. The CAARS solution promised, in theory, to meet that requirement. But it failed to do so – primarily because, as the GAO reported, the system’s algorithm technology was and is not yet sufficiently developed. Apparently driven by a sense of deployment urgency, DNDO reportedly decided on continuing with an aggressive development and acquisition schedule that exceeded the capabilities of the automated algorithm functionality.

A Lack of Communication and Collaboration? GAO also reported that DNDO failed to consult with users of this critical detection- enhancement technology both before and during the development and acquisition phases of the program. In fact, the CAARS research and development phase was concurrently underway with the acquisition phase. It seems, therefore, that at least some of DNDO’s assumptions were developed in a vacuum – i.e., void of CBP input. Only when it became apparent that the CBP could not use the CAARS technology as designed did DNDO make the course correction mentioned earlier. Moreover, DNDO’s Fiscal Year 2009 and Fiscal Year 2010 budget justifications failed, the GAO also reported, to reflect the full magnitude of the course correction.

In light of the fact that DNDO has not delivered a viable rad/nuc advanced radiographic solution to CBP, the lead protector of U.S. POEs, the latter agency has taken several steps to create its own solution. There is another complication, though: DHS plans to move the responsibility for research and development of advanced radiographic imaging from DNDO to the department’s Science and Technology directorate in Fiscal Year 2011. To some observers, the transition period is likely to create even greater uncertainty and fragmentation of responsibilities between CBP, DHS S&T, and DNDO. Therefore, unless DHS itself takes definitive and effective steps to ensure a greater clarity of responsibilities between and among the several agencies most directly involved, the mistakes and delays evident in the CAARS program may well be repeated.

Like many other homeland security technologies, rad/nuc detection systems must meet user application requirements. Moreover, it must be clear to all of the agencies involved that technology is an important but only one part of a comprehensive system of systems in the protection field. Research and development of rad/nuc detection solutions therefore must be fully tested and rapidly – but safely – matured in the user’s mission environment before greater investments are made in expensively broad acquisition programs. At the very heart of effective homeland security solutions is the universal need for a communicative and collaborative culture between and among the several agencies participating in this important, expensive, and technologically challenging program.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



No tags to display


Translate »