History's Troubling Lessons
The alarm over nuclear terrorism isn't new. In December 1945, a scant four months after an atomic explosion leveled Hiroshima, the United States was already anticipating the end of its nuclear monopoly. It was only a matter of time, scientists and generals knew, before other nations, particularly the Soviet Union, mastered the atom bomb.
So with that eventuality in mind, a group of nervous congressmen sought counsel from the father of the atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, about the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack. Chief among their concerns was that a bomb could be smuggled into a major American city and detonated without warning.
Prescient. Transcripts of that hearing, obtained from the National Archives, reveal a startlingly prescient debate on the Sisyphean challenge of homeland security. In one exchange, Colorado Sen. Eugene Millikin presses Oppenheimer about how to find a bomb hidden in a city:
Sen. Millikin: We... have mine-detecting devices, which are rather effective... I was wondering if anything of that kind might be available to use as a defense against that particular type of use of atomic bombs.
Dr. Oppenheimer: If you hired me to walk through the cellars of Washington to see whether there were atomic bombs, I think my most important tool would be a screwdriver to open the crates and look. I think that just walking by, swinging a little gadget would not give me the information.
That candid assessment shocked the senators, who then asked the Atomic Energy Commission to examine the problem. In the early 1950s, two top physicists, Robert Hofstadter and Wolfgang Panofsky, a veteran of the Manhattan Project team that built the atomic bomb, produced a still-classified assessment, which came to be known as the Screwdriver Report.
Panofsky, now the director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, says the assignment was to detect 1 cubic inch of highly enriched uranium or plutonium hidden inside a crate and smuggled across a land border. "The conclusions of that report are still valid because the laws of physics have not changed one bit," Panofsky tells U.S. News. "You still can't detect a nuclear device unless you are, say, 10 feet away from it-and even then it can be quite easily shielded."
Not everyone completely agrees; Department of Homeland Security officials say new state-of-the-art detectors can do a much better job than that. But the basic point is still valid-and alarming. Radioactive material emits less radiation with distance from its source. Despite the Screwdriver Report's conclusions, though, the government back then began a covert pilot program at selected airports and seaports to scan for radioactivity. The short-lived "Cyclops Project" had a poor record of success, according to Panofsky and historian Gregg Herken, author of Brotherhood of the Bomb. In fact, says Panofsky, the only thing that the Cyclops system discovered was a woman at a New York airport who tried to evade customs by taping 200 wristwatches with radioactively luminescent dials to the inside of her corset.
This story appears in the February 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.