Time and time again, politicians, pundits, and security experts have painted the terrifying picture of a mushroom cloud looming over the vaporized remains of an American city. If you look at the budget for missile defense (DoD has requested approximately $10 billion for FY 2011) you’d think that the most likely attack on the United States would come via a ballistic missile, given that what the U.S. spends on missile defense greatly exceeds combined spending on domestic and international maritime and port of entry interdiction efforts and nuclear detection activities.
The dirty little secret of domestic nuclear defense, however, is that should the US ever come under nuclear attack, odds are that it will not come from a missile launch. Instead, a nuclear device or dirty bomb is likely to be delivered from a non-missile source, such as a container entering a U.S. port.. On June 30, witnesses at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs revealed that the US remains woefully vulnerable to this kind of threat…
The committee heard from three witnesses:
• Eugene E. Aloise
Director, Natural Resources and Environment Division
U.S. Government Accountability Office
• Micah D. Lowenthal, Ph.D.
Director, Nuclear Security and Nuclear Facility Safety Program, Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board
National Research Council of the National Academies
• Dana A. Shea, Ph.D.
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy; Resources, Science, and Industry Divsion; Congressional Research Service
Library of Congress
The purpose of the hearing was to examine the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), a little-known agency established in 2005 within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to detect nuclear smuggling operations (the hearing coincided with the release of a GAO report on the issue). The office is charged with creating an overarching system of domestic nuclear detection involving the Departments of Defense, Energy, and State (as well as others), a mandate that has met with some success. About two-thirds of the more than 2,100 radiation portal monitors planned for by the DHS have been deployed at points of entry around the US. Today, nearly all cargo containers transported by vehicles across our borders are scanned for nuclear materials, as are almost 100% of all containers coming through our seaports.
However, according to the GAO report, only a small percentage of rail and air cargo is ever scanned, and DHS has also failed to meet its scanning and inspection goals for commercial air cargo, baggage, and passengers. Indeed, as Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman noted, “As I look back and look at where we are now…the threat of nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is growing faster than our ability to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack.” The witnesses confirmed this conclusion, placing the blame squarely on the DNDO.
A January 2009 GAO study, for instance, recommended that DHS address critical gaps in nuclear detection identified by the DNDO, especially un-policed border areas, commercial aviation, and small sea vessels operating outside of large ports, as soon as possible. DNDO has since taken no action on these issues. Instead of focusing on expanding coverage, since 2006 DNDO spent $234 million dollars (out of a possible $2 billion allocated) on developing advanced spectroscopic portal (ASP) radiation detection monitors, an upgrade over the current monitors that both Mr. Aloise and Dr. Lowenthal described as being a marginal improvement at best. In addition, all three witnesses criticized the DNDO for failing to create a strategic plan to address the domestic nuclear threat (originally called for by the GAO in 2002), leading to a lack of cohesion between departments and wasted time and tax dollars.
When pressed by Sen. Lieberman for his opinion, Mr. Aloise said that had the DNDO focused on coverage instead of technological upgrades, closing gaps in protection would have been achievable: “There’s certainly ways, if given the resources and analysis, you could do it. So yes, we believe it can be done.”
Even the DNDO seems to have realized that its current direction is the wrong one, having requested an additional $13 million for another round of studies to produce a new master plan. Officials from DHS were invited to the hearing, but were apparently not prepared to testify. Another hearing has been scheduled for July 21.
“The time,” said a clearly frustrated Lieberman, “for multi-year ‘studies’ is over; the time for urgent action really is now.”