TCS Daily

All the Insecurity Money Can Buy

By Veronique de Rugy - June 30, 2005 12:00 AM

More than 80 nonproliferation and national security experts polled for a congressional study estimate that in the next decade the risk of an attack using some sort of nuclear device is as high as 70%. The odds are also high that terrorists will bring the nuclear devices into the United States through a port -- and the government's current efforts at port security only increase them.

The federal government spends Homeland Security money in peculiar ways - for city buses, ferry boats and national therapeutic programs to help kids deal with the idea of death. But it also has spent a fair bit of money on port security. Money doesn't always equal results, though. A recent review of the Port Security Grant Program conducted by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General seriously questioned the merits of "several hundred projects" related to port security.

In addition to these $563 million in grants, DHS has spent $300 million to install 470 radiation portal monitors (RPM) -- a technology meant to detect the so-called dirty bombs -- at U.S. points of entry to combat nuclear smuggling. That comes on top of another $500 million appropriated by Congress for that effort to the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the State Department.

But these radiation portal monitors probably won't keep you that much safer. A panel of nuclear security experts told members of the House Homeland Security Committee that these monitors can't reliably detect the crucial element in a nuclear bomb, highly enriched uranium. According to these experts, terrorists could easily shield the uranium and thus avoid detection by such passive radiation monitors.

That's not all.

Even if the system could detect every type of nuclear material, the terrorists also would have to be kind enough to bring the nuclear devices through the radiation monitors.

And, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the 22 RPMs used to screen 45% of containers emit about 150 false alarms a day. That means once ports start screening 100% of cargo more than 300 false alarms a day will go off. Based on an extremely low estimate of 10 minutes per follow-up inspections -- and assuming that RPM operations are fully staffed --the cost of these false alarms would be at least 50 hours per day. Since, 95% of international goods that come into the country come in through America's 361 ports; the economic impact of slowing down shipping in and out could prove immense.

A Government Accountability Office representative also testified that "the common problem faced by the U.S. programs to combat nuclear smuggling is the lack of effective planning and coordination among responsible agencies." No government-wide plan guides U.S. efforts, and many programs are duplicative. Some reports also point at border agents improperly handling radiation detectors because they lack proper training.

Have we really spent $800 million for nothing? Possibly. According to Charles Masey, a security expert at Sandia, "Our best bet [to prevent a nuclear bomb from going through our ports] is to dedicate all our resources toward the port of origin rather than here." Once the weapon is on its way, there is very small chance of stopping it before it is too late. If the goal is really to stop a nuclear disaster, the federal government should persuade officials abroad to tighten security at the foreign ports that feed shipments into U.S. ports. It could, for example, help fund systems to bolster foreign countries' ability to detect nuclear material in their ports.

An estimate shows that deploying a screening system at every port in the world would cost roughly $1.5 billion. That, for once, might be a cost effective security measure. Of course, it should be funded by cutting low priority programs in place now rather than adding it on top of them. Better yet, it might not be necessary to invest equally in every port. For instance, 70 percent of the cargo that enters the Los Angeles and Long Beach port comes from Hong Kong and Singapore. So Port officials there should receive the greatest focus.

Ultimately, the most cost-effective measure is to keep close tabs on the foreign sources of uranium in places such as the Soviet Union. Experts claim that it is easier to monitor a lump of uranium at a known location than it is to detect uranium smuggling. Unfortunately, U.S. port officials face resistance from government officials in their endeavor to use cost-effective security measures rather than politically motivated ones. Until things change, the US will spend huge amount on homeland security, and America will yet remain vulnerable to catastrophic attacks.


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