Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
Since the container security initiatives that have been implemented by the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection Agency after 9/11 are not posing a meaningful barrier to determined terrorists, presumably one could look to the radiation sensors being deployed by the U.S. Department of Energy to provide a meaningful deterrent. Alas, the technology currently being deployed around the world as a part of the Second Line of Defense and Mageport programs is not up to the task of detecting a nuclear weapon, a lightly shielded “dirty bomb,” or highly enriched uranium. This is true not simply because there are problems at many foreign jurisdictions in keeping the detection equipment properly calibrated and in working condition as will be outlined in Mr. Aliose’s testimony. But there is a more basic problem which is that nuclear weapons give off very little radioactivity since they are extremely well-shielded so that they can be readily handled. In the case of a “dirty bomb”—as in the scenario I outlined at the start of my testimony—a terrorist who obtained or manufactured a dirty bomb is likely to take the necessary precaution of placing it in a container lined with lead. The result will be that even a properly calibrated radiation sensor is unlikely to be able to detect the very low levels of radioactivity to register an alarm. Finally, highly enriched uranium, which is used in the construction of a nuclear weapon, has such a long half-life that it emits too little radiation to be readily detected as well.
And of course if they used a chemical weapon or even a conventional explosive device these devices would be of no use whatsoever. Detonate a device or two on I-90/94 in Chicago in August and you could still shut down trade. Many containers are transloaded from the Western to the Eastern Rail lines by truck. Containers start blowing up or spewing toxic smoke do you think the local authorities would allow uninspected containers out of the railyards? Of course a nuclear device would cause national paralysis because of the psychological factors and even serious damage (even a device within terrorist capabilities could disable a Port or a Railyard, and we don't have that much spare capacity).