- Existing radiation portal monitors, as well as new advanced spectroscopic portal machines, cannot reliably detect weapons-grade uranium hidden inside shipping containers. They also set off far too many false alarms.
- So-called active detectors might perform better, but they are several years off and are very expensive.
- The U.S. should spend more resources rounding up nuclear smugglers, securing highly enriched uranium that is now scattered overseas, and blending down this material to low-enriched uranium, which cannot be fashioned into a bomb.
Customs inspectors at a pier in New York City send a sealed cargo container just taken off a ship from Istanbul through a radiation scanner. A dozen new tractors seem to be inside. Although the detector senses no radiation, the inspectors open the container anyway. Their handheld units show no radiation either, so they allow the container to leave. A private hauler drives it to a small Midwestern city. There terrorist cell members remove what was their final shipment of highly enriched uranium, concealed as 10 metal washers in the tractor engines, together weighing two kilograms. Months later an improvised nuclear device with a yield of one kiloton is detonated in Los Angeles. The blast, fire and airborne radioactivity kill more than 100,000 people. Virtually all shipping into the U.S. is halted, precipitating a financial crisis. Military operations commence in the Middle East after forensics and intelligence efforts trace the plot to cells in Pakistan and Iran.
This article was originally published with the title Detecting Nuclear Smuggling.