Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 31, 2007

How Costly is a Nuc in a City?

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 31, 2007

As we debate the Department of Homeland Security’s Securing the Cities Initiative, its worth considering the actual impact of a nuclear weapon detonated in a densely populated urban environment.  Defense Canada’s R&D arm partnered with Battelle to produce a schematic illustrating a “preliminary analysis on the economic impact of a nuclear weapon event in Vancouver.” 

The city of Vancouver has a population (578,041) about the size of Washington, DC (581,530).  The project considers the impact of a 0.7 kiloton bomb, a 13kT bomb, and a 100kT bomb.  The presentation identifies five different categories of cost:

1.      Loss of productivity of earnings forgone

2.      Indirect effects or multiplier

3.      Loss and damage to building structures

4.      Decontamination

5.      Evacuation 

Perhaps the costliest aspect would be the response to a nuclear detonation in a North American city.  One of the more important developments underway right now within the counter nuclear threat community invests in both the pre-event and post-event challenges.  The creation of a more unified forensics capability to identify, characterize, and source nuclear material – hopefully pre-detonation – is making progress. 

The National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center is being developed under the guidance of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at DHS.  The interagency Center is charged with serving as “a national capability developer for pre-event rad/nuc materials forensics” and with providing “end-to-end planning, enhancement, and integration” of nuclear forensics capabilities.  Three areas comprise its mission:

·        Signatures development

·        Analysis

·        Capabilities enhancement 

With about $17 million in the FY08 budget request, this is a modest start, but an important one. 

The original impetus behind creating the DNDO rested on the understanding that the smuggled nuclear threat is different from other WMD threats in several ways.  One principle way is the dispersed ownership of the mission across the Executive branch.  A uniquely interagency approach is critical.  The NTNFC reflects this as a microcosm.  Participating agencies in the forensics center include DHS, FBI, and the Departments of Energy and Defense. 

DHS leads the pre-event interdiction mission, DOD, the post-detonation part, DOE has pre-det “nuclear device technical nuclear forensics”, FBI is in charge of investigations and analysis.  One big happy family.  Let’s hope this whole Center is merely an academic exercise, but should forensics – or attribution – become necessary, this unified approach makes sense.

Update: I am traveling until Monday, June 4, without access to the site.

May 28, 2007

UMD Terror Database, Now Public, Should Inform Risk Analysis

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 28, 2007

The University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) made its terrorism attack database publicly available.  It provides a unique service for understanding the big picture, but other uses may include adding depth to the challenge of understanding risk in the context of terrorism threats. With content covering about 80,000 incidents between 1970 and 2004 (details on the period through 2007 forthcoming), it provides one of the few data sources for risk analysis of this scope and detail.  Intentional attacks disallow a conventional approach to gauging risk because data points (incidents) are the result of adaptive causes (perpetrators). 

Because factors other than frequency and severity should inform assessments of terrorism risk, it is noteworthy that the START database includes 45 factors (~140 in the next version) that can be used to determine antecedent markers, common vulnerabilities, and other trends of that emerge from a deep look at past cases. The Congressional Research Service waded into the subject of risk as outlined in this post.

Other helpful resources for understanding trends and historical data in terrorism include an excellent visual representation by Claire Rubin and William Cumming found here.  Their terrorism timeline provides a useful and evolving snapshot of terrorism and other “major incidents” since the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The juxtaposition of these events with corresponding or concidental policy outcomes that include federal policies, exercises, plans, and statute is of particular value.

While trend setting is one way of judging risk, another is just plain insight and anticipation of likely events, outcomes, and relevant impact based on good information.  Exclusive Analysis, a London-based firm with staff scattered around the globe, produces what might be among the best ongoing risk analysis out there serving everything from governments to private sector clients of a range of sizes.  They publish a subscription-only “Intelligence Bulletin” focused on regions and/or industry sectors.  Its a pithy yet detailed distillation that publishes daily.  The value here is a targeted concept of risk (i.e. inclusive, but not anything and everything) that nevertheless rules in just about every factor from local changes in laws pertaining to chemical stewardship or privacy practices to consequential government deliberations about planned interventions and interests overseas.  Worth looking into at this site.

May 22, 2007

Fun and Games on the Homeland

Filed under: Homeland Defense,Preparedness and Response — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 22, 2007

DHS concluded Ardent Sentry – Northern Edge, a full scale exercise testing DOD, state/local, and interagency responses to a range of scenarios to stress test capacity and knowledge of NIMS, the NRP, etc.  Even the Canadians are involved. 

AS/NE introduced an interesting new role that reflects progress from the post-Katrina position to consider turning to the Pentagon as lead federal agency too quickly.  The “Defense Coordinating Officer” (DCO) debuted to coordinate information and requests between FEMA and the Department of Defense.  Apparently it worked so well that DCOs will be assigned to each of FEMA’s 10 regions.  It probably helps that even before Katrina the Homeland Defense team at DOD was steadily writing up “prescripted requests for assistance” to anticipate the kinds of state and local needs that might arise in any of the 15 national planning scenarios. 

But I digress.  The Ardent Sentry-Northern Edge war game kicked off a five-year schedule of national level exercises.  It began with FEMA Regions I and II dealing with hurricanes from New York to Maine.  Region X’s (Alaska) scenario even involved terrorist threats to energy infrastructure.  FEMA Region V got the real deal with managing response mechanisms and practices following the fictitious detonation of a 10-kiloton nuclear device in Indianapolis.

I’m traveling until Memorial Day.

May 20, 2007

QFR No. 2: What Deployment Strategy?

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Technology for HLS — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 20, 2007

This is another question for the record Chairman Wu submitted after the March 8 hearing on the DNDO and DHS S&T budgets (previous post here).  His question gets to the heart of how technology and strategy should be required to work together.  He rightly points out that too much emphasis on technology (detectors) at the expense of smart tactics (deployment strategy) results in a waste of money and time, not to mention the introduction of unnecessary vulnerabilities.  In some ways, this issue is central to rationalizing what DHS calls a global nuclear detection architecture.

From the FY 2008 budget request and information I’ve received from DNDO, It seems that deployment of detection technologies is limited to highly-visible, highly-trafficked ports of entry with relatively little attention given to intercepting smuggled materials in foreign countries or detecting materials smuggled across more remote borders. Is this an appropriate way to deploy detection technologies? If not, what factors should DNDO consider when determining where to deploy their detectors?

The deployment strategy of detectors and other countermeasures in combating smuggling nuclear weapons may be one of the most important considerations in assessing the DNDO strategy.  However, that the strategy and budget seem to indicate a focus on domestic choke points (i.e. highly trafficked points of entry) is appropriate at this stage for two reasons.  First, efforts to detect or otherwise counter the threat of smuggled nuclear material overseas are mainly conducted by other agencies, although there is an important role for the DNDO.  Second, the DNDO was wise to begin their deployment strategy at major points of entry first given the priority of closing obvious gaps soonest, but they must move forward with a plan to deploy along less populated, and therefore less guarded, sections of the
U.S. border, among other improvements.

The effort to combat smuggled nuclear material is a global one.  Indeed the DNDO was originally named the National Nuclear Defense Office to reflect a broader mission than the one it is perceived to have today.  After working its way through the interagency process, this title lost the word “national,” which was replaced with Domestic, and the word “defense” became detection, in an apparent effort to winnow the mission of this new office.  In practice, this makes some sense since both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense also play a role in this area.  The DHS office was given the detection mission only, but that has since evolved, and for good reason.  Today, the DNDO works very closely with other agencies to develop not only new capabilities, but also the global deployment strategy that reflects and informs the use of detection efforts by all federal agencies including DOE, DOD, and others.

When the DNDO was created in April 2005, the White House placed significant emphasis on deploying detection capabilities quickly and in the most needed places.  This had both positive and negative effects.  The priority on deploying detectors quickly naturally sacrificed quality in the short run.  The “pagers” and first-generation portal monitors (RPMs) suffered from poor selectivity that forced them to signal an alarm when encountering non-threatening materials that naturally contain radiation.  This led to news reports and internal assessments that showed RPMs signaling a “hit” when only ceramic tile or other commercial material was found in an a container or truck hold.  The other major trade-off that resulted from an accelerated deployment schedule was the low sensitivity of the earlier detectors (many of which are still in use).  Low sensitivity leads many detectors to be unable to sense the presence of source material because, ironically, HEU and other elements actually give off very low levels of radiation prior to detonation.  Current research and development underway at DNDO already shows major progress in both selectivity and sensitivity in a variety of settings.

The priority of placing detection capabilities at highly trafficked points of entry reflects a judgment call the DNDO and DHS leadership had to make at the time DNDO stood up and began using its first budget in FY 2005.  Given limited resources, the constraints of a new organization, and an evolving threat, the choice was made to start with the most likely choke points based on traffic patterns (both licit and illicit) and the risk these areas posed to surrounding infrastructure and populations.  Over time, the DNDO plan reflects an intention to contribute to anti-terrorism programs overseas by supporting the DHS-DOE-State Department Secure Freight Initiative and NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor.  This is a positive development that also indicates the aggressive progress DNDO is making in the field of nuclear detection.  Future development in DNDO’s deployment strategy certainly includes efforts like Securing the Cities, but also networked detection capabilities in less traveled sections of the border to close those serious gaps you cited.  An important improvement in strategy would include the use of decoys, hidden detectors, and mobile sensors to offset the adversary and increase the deterrent value of our anti-terrorism capabilities.

May 17, 2007

Securing the Cities QFR

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 17, 2007

Three interesting questions for the record followed the March hearing before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation.  They may reflect wider sentiment among those providing oversight of federal efforts to reduce the threat of smuggled nuclear weapons.  I believe they are public now, so here’s the first one from Chairman Wu:

1.   In your opinion, what are the benefits of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s Securing the Cities Initiative? Is this type of project likely to be successful in preventing the unlawful transport and detonation of nuclear or radiological devices in the US? Do you believe that the requested funding level of $30 million for FY 2008 is appropriate?

The DNDO’s Securing the Cities Initiative (STC) reflects an investment in an important part of a layered defense.  While efforts to secure sources of nuclear material in troubled areas like the former Soviet states remain critical, in addition to interdiction operations like the Proliferation Security Initiative, efforts like STC help close an important gap in today’s detection mission. 

Because even the most effective global effort to stop illicit movement of dangerous nuclear material will be less than 100% successful, it is wise to consider domestic detection efforts in major cities.  A perpetrator may be able to obtain nuclear material and evade detection overseas, en route, and across the U.S. border, which is known to be porous in parts.  If this occurs, it is likely that intelligence communities will have some warning and be able to provide law enforcement and other authorities with valuable information to aid an apprehension.  An STC effort would greatly help augment intelligence and law enforcement officials by providing added warning and more accurate information about the location of nuclear material.

The scenario of nuclear material smuggled across U.S. borders, while dangerously possible, is perhaps as likely as nuclear material obtained from within the United States for use against a major U.S. city.  Dangerous source material for a dirty bomb can be found in unsecured commercial locations or universities where nuclear material is located for legitimate uses.  If a perpetrator steals this material, STC capabilities provide a better ability to locate and isolate the material.

Whether or not STC will be successful is difficult to say at this stage, but some precedence already exists that indicates such an effort could indeed be effective.  The Department of Defense (DOD) already deploys their own version of STC focused exclusively on protecting bases within the U.S.  Detectors are in place surrounding the bases to detect a potential nuclear threat in vicinity of the base.  Ongoing R&D for these programs is focused on increasing the ability to detect source material moving at greater speeds along public roads that lead to these bases.  The potential for cooperation between DNDO and DOD should be pursued for mutual benefit.

Lastly, DNDO’s budget request for STC deserves attention.  The nation’s investment in STC should reflect a commitment to thinking creatively and responsibly about the threat of nuclear terrorism in America’s cities.  The nearly $11 billion to be spent on missile defense this next year places the STC budget in perspective.  With an overall DNDO budget of approximately $550 million, dedicating $30 million to Securing the Cities seems appropriate.  At this early stage, a healthier investment like this would help identify more promising routes to success while weeding out potential dead-ends.  STC is equal parts R&D and strategy.  These early months will require a dedication of brain power that must be hired as well.

May 12, 2007

Port of Tacoma Sight of New DNDO T&E Effort

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Port and Maritime Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 12, 2007

DHS – through the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office – is starting to test and evaluate equipment focused on the blind spots around the shipment of containerized cargo.  While this effort satisfies Section 121(i) of the SAFE Port Act of 2006, it also reflects proposals made by the Homeland Security Advisory Council in 2005 when it’s Task Force on Preventing Weapons of Mass Effect explained the importance of adopting a layered prevention strategy.  Intermodal chokepoints served as key examples for the Task Force’s argument.  Specifically, the gaps in scanning and other preventive measures needed to be in place when a target item (i.e. cargo container) transferred one conveyance (boat) to another (rail).  The Task Force considered this next layer a “critical deficiency” that required the Department’s attention.The DNDO announced yesterday that: 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will soon begin conducting multiple projects in the Port of Tacoma, Wash., to evaluate technology and concepts of operations for radiation detection that will scan cargo at various points in transfer from ship to rail.  By establishing a Rail Test Center (RTC) at the port, DHS will identify and evaluate radiological and nuclear detection solutions for intermodal rail port facilities that can be used across the country.

A major recommendation and recurring theme from the Nuclear Defense Working Group at the Center for the Study of the Presidency held that detection efforts were strongest when targets were in motion or under scrutiny already (i.e. cargo was only screened when checked, registered, or loaded, and usually at only one of those points).  Containers and other targets at rest were a glaring weakness, according to the NDWG, in need of innovative solutions that did not include scattering expensive scanners over every square inch of an airport or seaport.  The same DNDO announcement reminded me of that recommendation with this detail:

Projects being considered for further evaluation at the RTC include scanning cargo on the dock, during transport to the rail yard, entering the rail yard, in the container storage stack, during train assembly, and as the train leaves the port.

These are promising efforts, albeit nascent ones.  These are also only one part of the broader effort to reduce the threat of smuggled nucs.  Let’s hope the non-proliferation and Nunn-Lugar-type programs get the same attention.  More on that can be found at Jeffrey’s ArmsControlWonk.com.