Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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.

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