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Defending Against the Nuclear Threat

​SINCE 2007, Congress has appropriated approximately $120 million to New York City as part of what is known as the Securing the Cities Initiative—the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s attempt to build up a nuclear and radiological detection infrastructure inside high-risk metropolitan areas as a defense against a terrorist attack. The New York City Police Department used that money for both equipment and training. By the end of 2012, it will have purchased and distributed more than 8,000 radiological and nuclear detectors to law enforcement and first-responder agencies within a 45-mile radius of the city.

It is also using the funds to train more than 13,000 of its own and partner agencies’ personnel in radiological and nuclear detection and investigation.

Securing the Cities (STC) is the final security layer in the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (GNDA), a program of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Much of the GNDA is focused on stopping radiological and nuclear material overseas from finding its way onto American shores, whether that’s by securing loose nuclear materials around the world or screening cargo containers at foreign ports before they ship to the United States.

While many homeland security programs are assailed for waste and abuse, this program is considered a model of efficiency. But with the program set to expand this year to another undisclosed high-risk city, some stakeholders worry that not enough money will go to sustaining the capabilities already in place.

Nature of the Threat
Some experts are concerned that U.S. and international efforts won’t stop terrorists from gaining access to the materials they need to construct an improvised nuclear device (IND). Kenneth C. Brill, former U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Kenneth N. Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, have written that the current global regime is inadequate because it’s largely voluntary, lacks accountability, and is inconsistent across borders.

The threat does not emanate only from overseas. Domestic sources of radiological materials abound. “You and I could meet today, and we could probably conduct a radiological attack tonight if we wanted to,” says Charles Blair, senior fellow on state and nonstate threats at the Federation of American Scientists.

The problem is an abundance of commercially available sources of radiological material, particularly in medical equipment like blood irradiators.

In the United States, it’s the responsibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to regulate the security of radiological sources at hospitals and medical facilities. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the NRC had written overly broad and flexible rules to allow hospitals and medical facilities the leeway to cost-effectively secure the radiological sources.

“These approaches have created a mix of security controls and procedures that could leave some facilities’ radiological sources more vulnerable than others to possible tampering, sabotage, or outright theft,” Gene Aloise, the director of natural resources and environment at the GAO, told Congress in March.

Radiological terrorism is by far the more probable threat to New York City. While a radiological dispersal device (RDD), or dirty bomb, is relatively easy to construct and deploy, the upside, which often goes unacknowledged, is its relative lack of lethality. According to a Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) paper, “Few, if any, people would die immediately or shortly after use of an RDD from exposure to the ionizing radiation from such a device, although, depending on its placement and size, many individuals might die from the conventional bomb blast, if this method were used to disperse radiological materials.” Researchers in the academic journal Survival agree: “[T]he death toll from a dirty bomb would be very unlikely to reach three figures.”

But Blair stresses that even a small radiological attack would have a huge impact on the American psyche. He notes how even unsuccessful attacks like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s underwear and cartridge bomb plots end in hundreds of millions of dollars spent on new security technology and protocols. If a successful radiological attack occurred, people would be afraid to repopulate the area for fear of cancer, even if the government assured residents that it was safe, he says.

If that happened on Wall Street, “people couldn’t go to work there until [it was] cleaned up,” says Inspector Stuart Cameron of the Suffolk County Police Department and co-chair of the STC Concept of Operations Committee. “According to published studies, it’s going to cost $5 [billion] to $7 billion or more to clean that up.”

This is why the CNS considers an RDD a “weapon of mass disruption, rather than a weapon of mass destruction.” A terrorist group that chooses a radiological weapon isn’t trying to kill its victims, it wants to terrify and economically destroy them.

An IND, however, is another story altogether. “An RDD is a disaster; an IND is an absolute catastrophe,” according to Cameron. A recent DHS-sponsored planning report from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory wrestled with the nightmare scenario of a 10-kiloton IND detonating just blocks away from the White House in downtown Washington, D.C. Immediate fatalities caused by the blast, however, were not calculated, according to a source close to the report, because the objective of the study was response planning and determining the amount of casualties requiring life-saving medical attention. The study did note that “few people would survive” within a half-mile radius of the blast.

While an IND is terrifying, Blair notes that there is disagreement within the nuclear scientific and security communities over whether an IND is a real threat. Skeptics note that terrorists would find it incredibly challenging to recruit someone with the technical know-how to pull it off, much less transport it to the detonation site without raising alarms.

There is evidence, however, that domestic right-wing extremist groups inside the United States could present an RDD threat, according to Blair. He notes that some “have a violent, apocalyptic eschatology.” In December 2008, the FBI found radiological dispersal device components, radioactive materials, and dirty bomb instructions at the Maine home of Neo-Nazi James Cummings, who was killed by his wife after years of abuse. Cummings didn’t have the correct radioactive materials to construct a true dirty bomb, but the materials indicated intent.

Collaborative Solutions
The nuclear/radiological threat is too big for the federal government to tackle itself, which is why STC is built on a foundation of regional interagency participation. “Fundamentally if we’re going to protect America against nuclear and radiological threats, we’re going to have to rely on state and local officials to implement the plan linked to federal authorities, and that’s exactly what the STC program does,” DNDO Director Warren Stern said. If all other security layers fail, it’s Stern’s hope that STC won’t.

The New York City and Jersey City/Newark Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) regions, known collectively to DNDO as the “NYC region,” was the logical place to begin building the program from a risk assessment perspective.

Regardless of how probable an RDD or an IND attack is, the NYPD is a high-value, high-risk target, and the city is taking no chances. It is one reason the world’s most sophisticated counterterrorism police force took on the responsibility of managing the program’s many moving parts.

Authorities know that terrorists intent on attacking the city with either an RDD or an IND will likely not plan the attack inside the city for fear of detection. Rather, like many terrorists before, they will use the peace and quiet of the suburbs for their preoperational planning.

There is a long history of terrorists using the relative inconspicuousness of the suburbs to plan their attacks on large metropolises. Terrorists who conducted the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, and the botched car-bomb attack in Times Square in 2010 planned their attacks just outside the target cities.

That’s why STC favors a broad coverage area. “By pushing the detectors out into the suburbs, like Suffolk County, we potentially have a chance of detecting something when it has not been made operational yet,” says Cameron.

“[Terrorists] might think we’re not paying attention,” but “we are paying attention,” says James Sheehan, program manager of the Northern New Jersey-Newark/Jersey City UASI.

Of course, if law enforcement only discovered and disrupted a plot after the IND or RDD was operational, they might not be able to prevent detonation in the suburban area where the plot was being hatched, but it would occur in an area much less populated than Manhattan—a bittersweet achievement that would save many lives depending on the device.

Management. One of the reasons for STC’s success in the NYC/NJ regions, according to stakeholders, has been the NYPD’s management of the program. “The NYPD sits at the center of this,” says Sheehan. It gets high marks for how it distributes equipment and training to its surrounding partners.

The NYPD got its leadership role by working collaboratively with its other UASI jurisdictional partners and then showing DHS in its application that it had a regionally coordinated approach to implementing radiation detection and that the resulting plan had “buy in” from the major players in the region.

For instance, “NYPD’s applications all show partner arrangements with 12 other agencies in the region,” says STC Deputy Assistant Director Christopher Magrino. “The MOUs [Memoranda of Understanding] detail how money will be distributed from NYPD to each agency and how equipment and services will be procured by NYPD for use of the partners. The regional application also contains individual sections from all partner agencies specifying what they want to buy and how it supports the regional effort.”

The centralization of the effort helps increase the efficiency of the program. “New York City can purchase the equipment so each individual [department] doesn’t have to buy it,” Cameron says. “So we have a very standardized package of equipment… [and] a very standardized package of training.” This also leads to economies of scale with the NYPD purchasing detection equipment in bulk for cheaper unit prices.

Objectives. A key objective of the program is to build a detection network. One way this is being done is by using the funds to get personal radiation detectors (PRDs) onto the belts of as many well-trained law enforcement officers as possible within a 45-mile radius of the city. The more personnel carrying PRDs, the larger and more random the nuclear and radiological surveillance network becomes. That increases the chance that a threat will be detected.

The Northern New Jersey UASI region has bought into STC so much that it’s using other grant funding streams to purchase even more nuclear and radiological detection devices and putting them in the hands of other first responders, like fire inspectors and emergency medical service personnel, says Sheehan.

Another goal is to be able to identify the validity of PRD alarms in the field. Toward that end, the STC provides Radiation Isotope Identification Devices (RIIDs). If an officer gets a ping on his PRD and finds the source but cannot adjudicate the alarm, he can call for a RIID.

The hand-held detectors can help law enforcement officers determine what kind of radioisotope they’re dealing with. These devices are expensive, however, ranging from $15,000 for models with the lowest resolution to $90,000 for the highest resolution—the higher the resolution, the better the ability to differentiate the type of radioisotope.

“Not everybody needs all the expensive equipment, but you do need to adequately cover the area and make the equipment available, because anyone who has the most basic detector, the PRD, may need access to a RIID to adequately adjudicate something that they come upon,” says Cameron.

In Northern New Jersey, each of the seven counties that make up the UASI region has two RIIDs stationed at its county prosecutor’s office. The goal, says Sgt. Mike Davis, STC training and exercise coordinator for the New Jersey State Police, is to keep RIID response times to 30 minutes or less. This can be the difference between stopping and releasing a suspected terrorist or detaining him for a short time while investigators try to determine why a radioisotope was detected on or around him. "Police can only detain someone for a reasonable period of time while awaiting a specialized resource like a RIID,” says Cameron.

It can also help police distinguish real threats from false alarms. During a recent radiological full-scale exercise Suffolk County conducted with the help of STC partners, including the FBI and NYPD, officers using a combination of intelligence information and their STC-funded detection equipment were able to locate a dangerous radiation source concealed in a storage locker that had another naturally occurring radiation source nearby. According to Cameron, one of the biggest challenges of detection is differentiating potentially dangerous sources from harmless items, like bananas, that naturally emit low levels of radiation.

Officer PRDs have even uncovered loose or “orphaned” radiological sources that could threaten people from a public health perspective. McDermott recalled an incident in Morristown, New Jersey, where an officer armed with a PRD discovered a radioactive medical seed buried two-and-a-half feet underneath the street he was driving over. “It could have been potentially hazardous to a pregnant woman who happened to be in the area,” he says.

Far more serious instances of accidental radiological contamination can occur. Cameron and security researchers point to a 1987 incident in which thieves stole a medical radiotherapy machine to sell as scrap metal in Goiâna, Brazil. Inside was a small capsule full of radioactive cesium chloride that was freed by one of the thieves while they were scrapping the machine. More was later dispersed by the junk dealer who bought the scrap.

“The cesium chloride glowed, and it was used by the townspeople as body paint,” says Cameron. “Four people died of radiation exposure, several hundred more were contaminated and a large portion of the town was deemed contaminated.”

If a similar unintentional threat were brought into the NYC/NJ area, the chances of its being detected before widespread harm could occur would be greatly increased by the presence of so many frontline officers equipped with detection devices.

This broad-based field detection would not have been possible in the past. Thirty years ago, says Stern, the detection equipment that fits into an officer’s hand today would have taken up his corner office and needed a scientist to operate it and read it. Even as recently as a decade ago, equipping field officers with detectors would not have been possible.

Training. The STC effort includes interagency training and exercises that help create solidarity among law enforcement agencies operating within the program’s radius. “It’s not just New York City; it’s the New York Metropolitan region, which brings in the whole Tri-State area,” says Detective Sergeant Bob McDermott of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey.

The program yields multiple benefits. “Because of Secure Cities, we have thousands of police officers throughout the region [who] are trained to the same level, speaking the same language, using the same equipment. That’s important to radiological response but that can also be used during a Mumbai-style attack,” says McDermott. Stern notes that the STC structure was used for law enforcement coordination within the New York City metropolitan area as the tenth anniversary of 9-11 approached.

Officers are also trained in what constitutes a red flag with regard to possible nuclear and radiological threats, according to Cameron. If officers notice materials that act as nuclear shielding and radiological placarding, they’ll know to conduct a thorough investigation. Or if they identify the symptoms of radiation sickness, they might be able to sound the alarm that an attack has been launched or that someone has been handling radioactive material.

Another reason good training matters is to avoid situations that could harm the public’s perception of the program. For instance, in 2005, a British man who received a radioiodine treatment because of a thyroid problem set off radiation alarms at Orlando International Airport. His experience with security was humiliating. “He was immediately detained and strip-searched. Sniffer dogs were also used. A prolonged period of interrogation ensued,” wrote his doctors in the British Medical Journal. “Luckily, he was carrying his radionuclide card with him. He was finally released after a long delay and much embarrassment.”

STC training raises officers’ awareness of these types of alarms and how to determine that they do not represent a real threat, according to Cameron and Sheehan. And while critics may say that detecting medically irradiated people is a false positive, Sheehan disagrees. “Those are not false alarms,” he says. “That’s a radiological event which isn’t a terrorist event.”

No one can be sure whether Congress will adequately fund ongoing efforts. Funding is needed not only for expansion but also for maintenance.

In five short years, the STC program has achieved its goal of reducing the risk of terrorists smuggling a nuclear or radiological device into the New York City region. “Without Securing the Cities, you could have had total free reign to drive a very radioactive source all through the area, and there was no chance you could get caught,” says Cameron.

That success makes stakeholders hopeful that the funding will continue. But they also are looking for other options. For example, STC’s success in the NYC/NJ area has led other cities to seek DNDO financial assistance outside of that specific program.

Based upon the work that has been developed under the STC program, DNDO has assisted other city and state agencies in creating their own specific nuclear and radiological detection capability, including Los Angeles County, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and Philadelphia Police Department. The big difference between these efforts and STC, says Magrino, is that they are more localized and specific and generally rely on the agencies using their federal homeland security grant funding or their own money.

While these efforts are not formally STC, says Stern, “it’s the same basic concept: We’re helping state and locals to develop the capability to search for nuclear and radiological materials that are out of regulatory control.” And whether that happens under STC or some other DNDO program is irrelevant to Stern. “We have a job to do, really on a shoestring budget. And so we’re getting it done any way we can.”