Monday, January 07, 2008

Stopping Nukes at the 11th Hour?

This week's Sunday LA Times ran a story about the multi-agency effort to hunt nuclear materials and interdict a potential nuclear terrorist attack before it happens.

About every three days, unknown to most Americans, an elite team of federal scientists hits the streets in the fight against nuclear terrorism.

More than two dozen specialized teams have been positioned across the nation to respond to threats of nuclear terrorism, and as many 2,000 scientists and bomb experts participate in the effort.

Scientists in specially equipped helicopters and airplanes use radiation detectors to scan cities for signs of weapons. They blend into crowds at major sporting events, wearing backpacks containing instruments that can identify plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

If the many layers of federal defense against nuclear smuggling break down, these unarmed weapons designers and physicists, along with experts from the FBI, could be the last hope of staving off a catastrophic attack.

They are supposed to rush up to a ticking nuclear explosive (or a "dirty" bomb, which would disperse radioactive material) and defuse it before it's too late -- a situation often depicted by Hollywood that seems less fictional every year.
Hoo boy. "Hollywood" is right.

While I don't deny that these are smart, capable people, I have serious doubts about the efficacy of these efforts. This is last-hour, last-minute stuff - which works great in a movie script but perhaps not so well in the real world.

It's worth noting that these teams are looking primarily for the materials in nuclear weapons - plutonium and highly-enriched uranium. These materials are comparatively difficult to detect. It's needle-and-haystack thinking to suggest that these teams will be likely to interdict them in a crowd at a sports stadium, or while walking down the Vegas strip or a Manhattan street. Moreover, if a terrorist team were ever to acquire a nuclear bomb and transport it to the U.S., they wouldn't have to detonate it at the sports stadium or Strip itself. With a nuclear weapon, "close" is good enough.

The real effort must always be at the earlier stages of prevention: Recognizing threats before they become fully operational, and deterring these threatening elements from acquiring dangerous materials.

We are, of course, doing some of these things - working to deter the threat before it reaches our shores:
[T]he United States is retrieving and locking down nuclear fuels abroad, has created a line of radiation detectors at foreign and domestic ports, and has increased intelligence efforts.
It's these efforts that have a chance of reliably preventing the threat. The best we can say about the last-minute approach is that it's "not impossible" to imagine it might work:
If those and other measures fail, the emergency response teams are a last hope, but one nobody should rely on, said Charles B. Curtis, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which pushes for stronger efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Intercepting a device "is a very, very, very difficult problem, but not impossible," said Curtis, a former Energy Department deputy secretary.

Vahid Majidi, a nuclear weapons chemist and head of the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, seemed more confident. Asked how good his chances would be to find a nuclear bomb in Manhattan with 24 hours' warning, he said, "Quite reasonable."
Well, yes. If we have solid intelligence and 24 hours' warning, then it's reasonable to think we might be able to interdict and remove the threat. But these types of threats don't script themselves so neatly.

It's much better to train first responders to recognize all aspects of the threat (as the FDNY does in its counterterrorism strategy) and attack it from its earliest stages.

The last minute is just too late.

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