A Nuclear Headache
The feds are finding obstacles to sniffing out atomic weapons like suitcase nukes or dirty bombs
It was one of the first major scares after September 11. In October 2001, a CIA agent told the government al Qaeda had smuggled a nuclear bomb into New York City and intended to detonate it. A covert search team from the Department of Energy was dispatched to search for the weapon. It was never found, but the incident worried the administration so much that Vice President Dick Cheney and several hundred federal employees holed up in a bunker for weeks, just in case a twin attack leveled Washington.
Such fears still resonate. Department of Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff's virtual battle cry is that he wants to focus DHS's resources on preventing the most catastrophic attacks. Nuclear bombs are the rare weapon that can kill hundreds of thousands. And experts say the unleashing of a dirty bomb-a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material-could sicken thousands of people and cause unparalleled economic damage. So it's not surprising that DHS and New York-area authorities are planning an aggressive approach in coming months: They'll surround Manhattan with radiation detectors they hope can sniff out a weapon before it does harm. But it's an ambitious, expensive effort, and critics worry they're going too far, too fast.
Trying to protect against nuclear threats is hardly new. The Department of Energy created SWAT-like search teams in 1974 after, in what turned out to be an elaborate hoax, a man in Boston threatened to detonate a nuclear weapon unless the government gave him $200,000. After 9/11, detection moved to the open: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has installed 321 radiation detectors in U.S. seaports and has used smaller devices to help secure the last three Super Bowl games. Officials in New York City have at least 700 hand-held radiation detectors-with good reason. "Because dirty bombs can be made from readily available devices used in hospitals and construction sites," says Ivan Oelrich, a nuclear physicist with the Federation of American Scientists, "there's really no good explanation why this [sort of attack] hasn't happened yet."
Freeway. Today's detection efforts, however, are limited by technology. Many machines now in use must be driven through-at about 5 mph-to produce a reading. And the vast majority of machines can't distinguish between harmful and harmless, naturally occurring radiation. Still, DHS's current approach has been quietly gaining speed in the past year. Five months ago, the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office launched a pilot project to add nuclear detectors to 18-wheeler weigh stations in nine southeastern states. "Kentucky might not necessarily be the target," explains Mary Pedersen with the state's Office of Homeland Security, "but chances are it's on the way." Her state, which is crisscrossed by 70,000 semi-trucks each day, currently has detectors in weigh stations on two interstates. She estimates that within two years it will be hard for most trucks to drive very far into Kentucky on any freeway without a radiation scan.
The New York model builds on that effort, but it will touch everyone on the road. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly says the plan is to create a "ring of radiation detectors" roughly 50 miles outside Manhattan's border. Vehicles that trigger alarms can be stopped and searched, before they reach the city. Among the ideas being weighed: using covert detectors hidden inside SUVs to take radiation readings of cars in nearby lanes.