Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 11, 2014

The scariest news from an eventful week

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on June 11, 2014

A lot of bad things occurred this past week. Real bad things.  Perceived bad things.  Real people died.  Real cable news pundits produced not-so-real outrage.

In regards to foreign terrorism those Afghanistan Taliban prisoners recently released and the situation in Iraq are getting most of the attention, and obviously given our country’s recent history in shaping events in both of those nations. However, I’d argue what transpired in Pakistan is much more worrisome.

Gunmen attacked Pakistan’s international airport in Karachi Sunday night, and the fighting continued into Monday morning.

The reported death toll has been rising: The latest from Pakistan media is that at least 23 are dead, including airport guards and the 10 militants said to be behind the attack.

A spokesman for the Airport Security Force told The Associated Press that the military was called in, but after that the fighting is now over.

The New York Times reports:

“Security forces sealed off the airport, and flights began being diverted away from Karachi within minutes of the fighting. Witnesses saw smoke rising from the airport’s old terminal, and one Pakistani news channel showed footage of a fire burning close to a plane.”

The AP notes that Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, “has been the site of frequent militant attacks in the past.”

Just for a moment, let this sink in.

Pakistan is a nuclear power.  It produces a lot of nuclear weapons.  This requires producing a lot of nuclear weapons-useable material.

This nuclear power cannot keep it’s largest international airport in it’s largest city safe. This was not a small airfield in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.  This was JFK or O’Hare or LAX being attacked by armed militants.

Any insurgency in a nuclear weapons state should be worrisome.  Since they are able to assault the most important airport in perhaps the most important city in a nuclear weapons state should be especially worrisome.

In my opinion, ignore the loud voices worried about the situations easiest to explain/blame someone. Worry about the ones few are talking about but that include nuclear weapons and material.

May 14, 2014

Radiation Roundup: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on May 14, 2014

THE GOOD

Members of the U.S. Senate are moving bills that aim to increase security at our nation’s nuclear power plants.

One of the bills, introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would ultimately force nuclear power plant operators to accelerate the transfer of nuclear waste stored in spent fuel pools into dry cask storage units.

Activists have long argued that spent fuel pools at many plants are filled beyond their originally intended capacity and could cause a catastrophic radioactive fire in the event of an accident or terrorist attack. Dry cask storage units, which some reactors are already using in a limited capacity, would be safer and more secure, watchdog groups have said.

In addition:

Another provision in Tuesday’s legislation would expand — from 10 miles to 50 miles — the size of the emergency planning zone around reactors that do not comply with the accelerated waste transfer plan.

Although NRC officials urged U.S. citizens within 50 miles of Japan’s Fukushima plant to evacuate during the onset of the disaster there in 2011, the commission only requires U.S. plants to have emergency response plans that cover a 10-mile area.

Finally:

A separate bill introduced by the same three senators on Tuesday would stop the commission from issuing exemptions to its emergency response and security requirements for those reactors that have permanently shut down.

Moving spent fuel to cask storage really should be a no-brainer, particularly following Fukushima.

What will be interesting to watch unfold is the conversation around expanding the area covered by emergency response plans around nuclear power plants.  To my knowledge the 50-mile decision has never been fully explained in light of domestic regulations capping it at 10 miles.  Expanding it seems simple, but all of a sudden metro areas like New York City and Boston will be within the special planning zones.  How does one plan to evacuate New York City following a nuclear accident?

THE BAD

Some in the medical industry are resisting efforts to replace equipment that contains highly radioactive isotopes that could potentially be used in a dirty bomb with safer designs.  Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe has the story:

But now federal officials worry the material that makes these devices dubbed blood irradiator machines so effective — a highly radioactive powder known as cesium chloride — could threaten public safety. Some fear that people could be exposed in an accident or, in a worst-case scenario, that the material could be stolen by terrorists to make a “dirty bomb” spewing radiation.

That has set the stage for an unlikely fight between the government and some in the medical industry who are reluctant to give up the relatively low-cost machines and replace them with more expensive devices that are safer but might break down more frequently.

The potential benefit?

“If we could make headway on this — if you could get all the cesium chloride off the market — it would be permanent risk reduction,” said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit dedicated to finding solutions to international security problems.

So what’s the holdup?

But some health providers and suppliers, which have a history of resisting such a change, say they are not convinced it is feasible to invest in newer X-ray irradiators, which costs up to $2 million, not including maintenance costs. They also said the technology is less reliable than the current machines, which can last up to 30 years, require little upkeep, and can handle larger quantities.

And:

Others contend that some of the resistance stems from the radioisotopes industry, for which cesium irradiation machines have been a lucrative slice of the market.

‘There are going to be winners and losers,” said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an expert on radiological materials. “The people who only make cesium chloride aren’t going to like it.”

Why is this a pressing issue?

Cesium chloride is considered among the most pressing challenges in preventing the use of a dirty bomb. It has similar properties as sodium chloride, or table salt, such as being dissolvable in water. Such properties, along with its high radioactivity, make it better suited to a terrorist weapon than other medical radiological materials, such as cobalt-60, which comes in the form of a small pellet or wire.

As early as 2008, the National Research Council, a private nonprofit that advises the government on policy, recommended getting rid of the material, saying that “cesium chloride is a greater concern than other radiation sources based on its dispersibility and its presence in population centers across the country.”

Safety regulations almost always face push-back from entrenched interests.  It seems our economy should be a shell of its current self due to decades old efforts to clean up our air and water. But as the Boston Globe article points out, the U.S. lags behind other industrial countries in replacing these machines and I can’t imagine they have greater concerns regarding the potential dangers of dirty bombs.

The article has a number of other interesting nuggets and is worth a read.

THE UGLY

In terms of U.S. nuclear terrorism security, Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee seem determined to cut off the nose to spite the face:

The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee last week approved legislative language that would prevent the U.S. Energy Department from using fiscal 2015 funds “for any contract, cooperation, or transfer of technology” between the United States and Russia until the crisis has been resolved. The panel included the language in its version of the annual defense authorization bill, which it passed last week.

“We acknowledge and are gravely concerned with the crisis in Ukraine — there’s no question about it,” Gottemoeller said in response to a question from Global Security Newswire. “But we shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot in terms of stopping or halting important national security work that prevents nuclear bombs from getting in the hands of terrorists because we have other grave concerns.

What does this work include?

Also included is the Energy Department collaboration with Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency, which she said had so far been responsible for the removal of 3,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from third-party countries. The collaboration also involves upgrading the physical security of buildings in Russia where sensitive nuclear material is stored, DOE officials have said previously.

If you rank the national security interests of the United States, preventing terrorists from exploding a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil should come in higher than concerns about Russian actions in the Ukraine.  Right?  Suspending activities that directly impact our security simply because it includes the word “Russia” is nonsensical. I bet it’s just as hard to find Russian dressing as French fries in the Congressional cafeteria these days…

March 26, 2014

Dirty bombs a left/right issue: left or right of boom

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 26, 2014

One of the headlines to emerge from the recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit concerned dirty, not nuclear, bomb material:

Twenty-three nations participating in the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands this week said they intend to comply with international guidelines regarding the security of so-called “dirty bomb” material.

The parties to the multilateral statement — including the United States and countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East — pledged to secure all their most dangerous “Category I” radiological sources under guidelines set out by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Specifically, they vowed to follow the IAEA “Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources.”

Radiological sources are those that, if paired with conventional explosives, could form a “dirty bomb” that disperses radioactive contamination over an area, but which cannot produce a nuclear detonation akin to an atomic bomb.

Matt Bunn, already referenced once today, isn’t accepting all this apparent progress on face value:

Bunn, however, criticized the transportation gift basket, which does not require the participating countries to utilize any specific security measures. He told Global Security Newswire that the transport-security pledge “is as weak as dishwater,” and he took exception to its suggestion that “the security record of civilian transport of nuclear materials has been excellent” historically.

“Essentially what it means is just that the shipments have not been seized by terrorists so far,” Bunn said. “It used to be legal to send plutonium by regular mail, and the industry complained loudly when the [U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission] started requiring any armed guards at all.”

Yet what he or other critics of the agreement failed to mention is that it is entirely focused on what is referred to as “left of boom.”  These are the prevention, occasionally encompassing preparedness, measures focused on preventing a dirty bomb attack in the first place.

Nuclear terrorism is a left of boom problem.  The part of a nuclear attack terrorists cannot achieve themselves is making the required fissile material.  While a large amount of nuclear weapons-usable fissile material exists (the vast majority in the U.S. and Russia), it is a finite amount that can conceivably be locked down or eliminated.

If a nuclear explosion goes off, you and everyone else in the world will know.  If an attempted attack “fizzles,” it will still result in government action that will make the 9/11 reaction seem tame.  Preparing to respond to a nuclear detonation is important, but once it goes off officials are basically relegated to cleaning up.

A dirty bomb is mostly a “right of boom” issue.  It is incredibly helpful to reduce the access to the potentially worst dirty bomb ingredients, such as cesium, by eliminating or drastically reducing their use in medicine and industry, as well as increasing transportation security standards.

However, unlike a nuclear explosion, the bar to detonating a dirty bomb is extremely low.  Simply add any radioactive material, which exists in countless forms for countless uses in countless fields, to an explosive device and voila!…Wolf Blitzer will be interviewing former administration officials about how this dirty bomb could have happened.  Didn’t we agree to get rid of this stuff at the last nuclear security summit?!?

I jest.  To a point. It is important to secure or eliminate the most dangerous radiological sources.  However, unlike with nuclear terrorism, it will not be possible to accomplish this for ALL radioactive substances.  And the the end product of any dirty bomb is panic and fear of lingering radiation that results in economic damage.  Basically an own goal or touchback if officials and the media emphasize the presence of ANY radiation following an attack, regardless if it included cesium or another isotope considered dangerous (for which these new suggested regulations are attempting to increase the security) or something just barely radioactive that can be measured by local officials on their Geiger counters – if they aren’t simply registering the already existing background radiation.

So what to do?  Concentrate on preparedness, response, and especially recovery.

  • Don’t focus public messages on prevention, but instead on preparedness. 
  • Emphasize the low risk nature of the threat; point out the lack of radiation injuries resulting from Three Mile Island and Fukushima.
  • Prepare succinct talking points for officials in case of a dirty bomb attack.
  • Officials should become comfortable downplaying the fear of radiation.  This should also be instilled in first responders.
  • First responders should have clear, exercised plans for dealing with any radiation-related incident.
  • Federal officials should transfer money from expensive efforts at prevention to developing new technologies for cleaning up.

The only people likely to die in any dirty bomb attack are those injured by the explosion.  The worst damage is caused by a fear of radiation.  The ability to decontaminate an urban area will deter potential dirty bombers in the future.

As long as the experts, currently in and out of government, do not go on cable news to expound on the over-hyped danger of dirty bombs.

Why Japan giving up nuclear material is a good thing

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 26, 2014

The Nuclear Security Summit recently wrapped up in the Hague.  While it was overshadowed by events in the Ukraine, there were several substantial actions reported and pledges made that move the ball forward on nuclear security.

One in particular involved Japan.  While it might seem strange that we should be celebrating Japan sending the U.S. nuclear weapon-usable material, or that we should be worried about their possession at all, Harvard professor Matthew Bunn provided a concise explanation for PBS’ Newshour:

The report Professor Bunn’s references in his interview can be found here. The main conclusions are:

Combat complacency. Developing and sharing a database of incidents with lessons learned, as well as expanded intelligence cooperation, will help those responsible for nuclear security make the case that nuclear terrorism is a real and urgent threat to their countries, worthy of a significant investment of time and money.

Improve protection for facilities and transports. Countries should ensure that all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear material under their control are at least pro­tected against a baseline threat that includes: a well-placed insider; a modest group of well-trained and well-armed outsiders, capable of operating as more than one team; and both an insider and the outsiders working together. Countries facing more capable adversaries should provide higher levels of protection.

Consolidate stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials so that there are fewer sites in need of security investments.

Strengthen security practices “on the ground” through improved training, realistic performance testing and “force-on-force” exercises, new programs to strengthen security culture, and exchanges of “best practices” among organizations responsible for nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities.

Build a more effective global nuclear security framework to help states co­operate on establishing standards and goals for nuclear security, discussing and deciding on next steps to improve nuclear security, confirming that states are fulfilling their responsibility to provide effective security, and tracking states’ progress in fulfilling their nuclear security commitments.  In particular, the authors suggest that for the next nuclear security summit in 2016, a group of states should make a high-level commitment to high standards of nuclear security and invite other states to join them, offering help to those who would like to meet the agreed standards but need assistance in doing so.

March 12, 2014

The non-Fukushima anniversary

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 12, 2014

I hesitated to post on the anniversary of the horrific Japanese tsunami.  I don’t have anything reasonably intelligent to say about the recovery efforts. And I think Phil summarized related issues quite succinctly in a comment to his post yesterday:

At least 18,000 died, 267,000 remain displaced. Progress in recovery has been made. Enough?

While I hope some portion of grief is reserved for those who suffered and still suffer, my greater concern probably relates to survivors much farther afield.

Tohoku is not Tokyo. Some day the tsunami will roll up Tokyo Bay. Some day the earthquake will shake L.A. Yet we have not, I think, given enough thought to what we might have learned — still might learn — from 3/11.

The only thing I would like to add is my general disappointment with the focus on Fukushima (in the American press almost always referring to the nuclear plant aspect of the disaster and not the larger prefecture). The New York Times fell prey to this inclination in their editorial “Fukushima’s Continuing Tragedy:”

Tuesday was the third anniversary of the triple disaster that struck the eastern Japanese prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima: the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear power plant meltdowns in Fukushima. The catastrophe killed 15,884, with 2,636 still missing. The government’s reconstruction efforts have been insufficient and painfully slow.

There are still 270,000 refugees, of whom 100,000 live in makeshift housing. Since the disaster, more than 3,000 refugees have died from medical problems and suicide. In Fukushima prefecture, more people have died of disaster-related causes after the disaster (more than 1,650) than were killed in the disaster (1,607).

What the editorial doesn’t mention is that none of the the dead in the Fukushima prefecture are a result of the radiation released from the nuclear plant.  Obviously, some if not many of the those that have perished in related causes after the disaster could be evacuees from irradiated areas – though at this point none would be due to radiation exposure.

Andrew Sullivan of “The Dish” falls into the same trap, as he quotes another blogger:

Then there’s the psychological impact. A Brigham Young University study released last week found that a year after disaster, more than half of the citizens of Hirono, a heavily affected town near the plant, showed “clinically concerning” symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Two-thirds showed symptoms of depression.

I do not certainly mean to diminish the trauma experienced by those who had to evacuate the area around the damaged nuclear plant.

I only wish to bring attention to all those who died, were hurt, suffered great loss, and can’t return to their homes damaged by the earthquake and/or tsunami.

As a nation we have an unhealthy preoccupation with radiation.  While I wish more would have been done in terms of regulating domestic nuclear power plant spent fuel storage and emergency planning guidelines following the Japanese disaster, the preparations for a true mega-disaster on the scale of the Japanese experience are even more lacking.

March 5, 2014

A new nuclear terrorism resource: “Nuclear Security Matters”

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 5, 2014

I realize this seems like the topic I just can’t let go of, but since a nuclear explosion on U.S. soil would be the ultimate homeland security issue I can’t but help share some further links regarding the upcoming nuclear security summit.  Here is the press release about the website “Nuclear Security Matters” that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs created:

Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs today launches a new website – Nuclear Security Matters – that provides policymakers, researchers, journalists, and the interested public with a wealth of facts, analysis, key documents, and other resources critical to the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit goal of preventing nuclear terrorism around the globe.

Nuclear Security Matters was developed by the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom with input from Center nuclear experts Graham AllisonMatthew Bunn,Trevor FindlayGary SamoreWilliam Tobey, and others.

The Nuclear Security Summit 2014, set for March 24-25 in The Netherlands, is a gathering of more than 50 world leaders aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism around the globe. The goal of the summit is to catalyze action to lock down, consolidate, and eliminate stockpiles of hazardous nuclear and radiological material and protect nuclear facilities around the world. Initiated by President Obama, the first Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington D.C. in 2010, followed by a second summit in Seoul in 2012.

In the weeks leading up to the Summit, Nuclear Security Matters offers visitors an array of documents, research materials, key facts and questions, analysis and commentary in one accessible location. More than 150 reports, articles, and documents by Belfer Center and other nuclear scholars and practitioners examine issues related to nuclear terrorism threats and vulnerabilities, progress and security gaps in countries around the world, and recommendations for further action. Numerous official documents provide details on international treaties and agreements and actions taken by countries to reduce stockpiles and lock down hazardous nuclear materials.

Current featured items include:

  • first-of-its-kind survey of nuclear security professionals in 18 countries identifying factors that have caused changes in nuclear security and accounting practices in the past 15 years.
  • detailed review of the current threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism, briefed to officials from participating countries responsible for organizing the Summit in The Hague.
  • Interview on nuclear security progress with Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction and arms control.
  • New commentary by Matthew Bunn on what to expect from the upcoming summit,William H. Tobey on ongoing failures in nuclear security that must be addressed, and Alex Wellerstein on mapping the effects of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Security Matters will be updated frequently with relevant documents and original commentary and research from nuclear experts at the Belfer Center and elsewhere.

If, like me, you just can’t get enough, here is the video of yet another presentation on the summit. Participants included:

Matthew Bunn
Professor of Practice; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard Kennedy School

Laura Holgate
Senior Director, WMD Terrorism and Threat Reduction, National Security Council

Samantha Pitts- Kiefer
Senior Program Officer, Nuclear Materials Security Program, Nuclear Threat Initiative

Gary Samore (moderator)
Executive Director, Research, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism)


If for some reason the video I attempted to attach to this post does not work, you can view it at:

http://forum.iop.harvard.edu/content/preventing-nuclear-terrorism-prospects-upcoming-summit

 

 

 

February 26, 2014

Previewing the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on February 26, 2014

Last week George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs hosted an event on “Previewing the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit.”

Harvard professor, and nuclear expert, Graham Allison provided his insight regarding the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit. The conversation is interesting on a lot of levels.  For me personally, I was very intrigued by the idea of the summit as an “action-forcing event.”

Despite the amount of time spent on deterrence and non-proliferation, this topic is incredibly relevant for homeland security as any failure in nuclear security can have a potentially large impact on the resilience of our nation.

 

Old news (about a stolen radiation source), but new analysis

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on February 26, 2014

Last December the funny papers and cable news were all over the story of radioactive material that went missing in Mexico. This website’s own Phil Palin covered the news here.

The material was recovered, and the thieves ended up hospitalized for radiation exposure.

What I’d like to share is analysis of the implications for U.S. domestic radioactive source security.  In other words, it can happen here.

Tom Bielefeld, a physicist who is an associate at the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard, recently broke down the issues involved in this case for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In particular, he notes several cases in “Western democracies” which should raise concern:

  • In July 2011, in the parking lot of a Texas hotel, a thief broke into a truck and stole a radiography camera containing 33.7 curies of iridium-192. The truck drivers had forgotten to switch on the vehicle’s alarm system when they went to dinner. Even though the hotel’s security camera recorded the thief’s car as it left, the device was never found.
  • In February 2013, thieves stole another radiography camera in a small town north of Manchester, England. A courier had left it in his van, which was parked in front of the residence where he stopped for a weekend. The device turned up a month later, at a nearby shopping mall, luckily undamaged.
  • In Canada, the Nuclear Safety Commission lists 17 cases from the past eight years in which radioactive materials were stolen from vehicles, or in which the vehicle itself was stolen with a radiation source in the trunk. Five of these cases involved radiography cameras. All five were eventually recovered.

The news isn’t all bad:

It is true that, in many countries, the situation today is somewhat better than it was 10 years ago. Largely, this is because the US government made the issue a priority after 9/11, when it launched programs for security upgrades in countries where unprotected radiation sources were abundant and presumably within reach of terrorists. US experts have worked in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, helping local partners install security equipment in hospitals and at disposal sites. They have also recovered radiation sources from abandoned facilities and assisted foreign governments in formulating new regulations to improve oversight.

It ain’t all good either:

While US initiatives to strengthen radiological security elsewhere in the world have been at least partially successful, progress at home has been surprisingly difficult. According to a 2008 report by the National Academies, there are more than 5,000 devices containing high-activity radiation sources in the country, including 700 with category-1 sources. So, if terrorists wanted to mount a dirty bomb attack in the United States, they might not have to go abroad to try to steal the material for it.

And there’s this:

Many stakeholders argue that the current regulations provide good-enough protection. In reality, however, there is still little reason for such confidence. In fact, in some US facilities, security conditions remain hair-raising, even when these facilities have been checked by inspectors. This came to light in a 2012 report published by the Government Accountability Office: GAO investigators visited a number of hospitals all over the country to see how the NRC’s new security rules were being implemented, and came back with some sobering findings. For example, one hospital kept a blood irradiator, a category-1 source containing 1,500 curies of cesium-137, in a room with the access code written on the door frame. Another hospital kept a similar device on a wheeled pallet down the hall from a loading dock.

Tom does not leave us without specific recommendations:

Ultimately, good security needs both: strong, strictly enforced regulations and actively participating licensees. Strong regulations are required because investments in security usually don’t generate profits for the businesses. But no security system can work effectively without a vigilant staff that understands the terrorism risk is real. Much like the long-established “safety culture” that has almost certainly prevented many serious radiation accidents, a new “security culture” is needed. This means that businesses, regulators, and government agencies are all aware of security threats, understand their individual responsibilities, and adapt their practices accordingly.

And:

Here are some specific recommendations for the various parties involved in transport security:

  • The NRC must further strengthen its regulations. Given the scale of damage that a “dirty bomb” could cause, it’s difficult to understand why there are still no armed escorts required for category-1 transports. A real-time location-tracking system should be mandatory, not just for vehicles transporting category-1 sources, but also for those with category-2 sources. Similarly, the requirement for drivers to identify “safe havens” for rest stops, before their trip begins, should be extended to category-2 transports.
  • The states could do a lot more, too. Those that do not yet require armed escorts for category-1 transports should implement such a policy soon—and not wait for the NRC to change its rules. And if there is one lesson from the Mexican incident for the states, it’s that all of them should be proactive when it comes to helping licensees identify secure parking areas.
  • The companies themselves play the main role in protecting radioactive sources. They need to be aware that someone might be after their cargo. Drivers, in particular, must be trained to follow security protocols, avoid risky situations, and respond appropriately should they come under attack. Managers should equip their trucks with low-cost security systems—such as GPS tracking systems, duress buttons, or vehicle disabling devices—even when they are not legally required to do so.

If you are concerned about dirty bombs, the entire piece is worth your time:

http://thebulletin.org/mexico%E2%80%99s-stolen-radiation-source-it-could-happen-here

December 5, 2013

Mexican radioactive material retrieved?

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Philip J. Palin on December 5, 2013

As I go offline Wednesday night it sounds as if the truck carrying radioactive medical waste hijacked north of Mexico City has been located and is in the hands of Mexican authorities.  The status of the cargo is not yet clear.

The hijacking occurred on Monday and has been widely reported as a random criminal act, not a purposeful effort to claim the cobalt-60 being transported from a medical facility to a waste treatment facility.

But whether by accidental release or intentional “weaponization” radioactive medical waste can present a substantial threat.  In 1987 the theft of a different radiotherapeutic agent in Goiania Brazil resulted in the death of four and health-threatening contamination of over 200.

March 30, 2012

Need to know, duty to share, and — Hey, is anyone paying attention?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on March 30, 2012

Over the last couple of years a FEMA grant supported a locally driven process to anticipate a possible nuclear detonation in the nation’s capital.  I was peripherally involved in the local process.

On March 14 the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists posted a principal document emerging from this local effort. (See: http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/ncr.pdf)

I commend the report to you.  In my judgment it’s a fine piece of policy-and-strategy oriented science.

Since the document was posted by the FAS it has been the focus of an Associated Press piece and several other media mentions.

“Have you seen the leak?” was the first line of several emails I received after the AP story appeared. As a “leak” the document suddenly had a previously unrecognized appeal.

When the document was initially completed in autumn 2011 it was simply a technical report — generated by a National Laboratory under a FEMA grant — but otherwise unofficial.    It was conceived by local leadership to provide an empirical and expert-informed basis for a process of  whole community engagement.  Public information and education regarding the IND issue had been a priority from very early in the process.  This original version of the report was distributed to the National Capital Region planning community, including me.

Sometime in December a decision emerged from FEMA to create an official version of the  document designated as For Official Use Only (FOUO).  This new version superseded the original document.  If DHS guidance on application of FOUO exists, I have not seen it.  In my experience FOUO means to know who’s getting the document and be sure there’s some good cause for that person to get the document.

While this is a very low level of “security”, there was still push-back to the designation from the response planning community. Local leaders argued they spent grant money on the report with an explicit expectation it would not be classified.  My favorite push-back quoted at length from a December 2 speech by Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute:

In national security there is a culture of confidentiality, the need to protect the nation’s most sensitive information.  In homeland security there’s an expectation of transparency:  it’s not a need to know, it’s a duty to share, it’s an expectation to share. In national security there’s unity of command.  In homeland security, it’s a unity of effort.  It’s a different model.  It’s a different model.  And we need to understand the things that we deal with from the differences that that model represents. (The underline appeared in the original push-back.)

Despite local requests — and appeals to higher authority — the FOUO revision stuck.

Several weeks before there was even a rumor of FOUO, I was using the original technical report and other materials in an effort to entice some long-form journalism focusing on the issues involved.  There was not even a nibble.

Maybe it was my angle.   For me one of  the most interesting issues exposed by the report is how public preparedness is fundamental to surviving any really bad day.  Whether the cause is earthquake, hurricane, nuclear detonation or whatever, our best science is finding public readiness and resilience before an event largely determines the success (or not) of response and recovery afterwards.

In the particular case of an IND in DC, tens-of-thousands will survive and potentially thrive if they don’t immediately try (and probably fail) to evacuate and instead shelter-in-place.  The technical report made this clear.  So does the original AP report.

Most of the headlines and much of the commentary since have neglected this aspect of the report.  But at least one media outlet led with this angle.  The headline in the Arlington (VA) Sun-Gazette was: Local Officials: Report Confirms Nuclear Attack Survivable If Right Steps Are Taken.

A new federal report looking at a low-grade nuclear explosion’s impact across the metropolitan area provides better insight on how to react and survive such an incident, county officials said.

For the most part, the mantra of public-safety officials boils down to: Shelter in place until the danger passes.

“If you’re outdoors, get indoors. If you’re indoors, stay indoors,” said Jack Brown, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management. “The public needs to resist the urge to go outside, get in their cars and get on the roads – the last thing we want the public to do is to be outside. Buildings do provide a lot of buffer.”

Seems to me a helpful message.  Glad it’s gotten a bit more attention because of reports on the report.

Here’s a guess, the report was news-worthy — it appeared in dozens of the nation’s principal news outlets —  for two reasons: 1) it was a government report about something very bad and 2) there was a slight suggestion the government was trying to keep the report secret.  As such the report fit two of the core narratives of journalism: “the king has announced” and “the king is corrupt.”   These two story-lines have been the top of the news for about two centuries.

Thank goodness for the FOUO designation.   Without that, no one may have noticed at all.

March 27, 2012

Fixated by “Nuclear Terror” or Just Paranoia?

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Alan Wolfe on March 27, 2012

President Obama visited Seoul, South Korea, for a three-day nuclear security summit that involved discussions with officials from 53 countries and four international organizations, following up on actions initiated at the 2010 nuclear security summit hosted in Washington DC.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has this fact sheet that describes the event and its agenda.

  • Cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism
  • Protection of nuclear materials and related facilities
  • Prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials

These are all worthy goals, although I might quibble with the idea of “combating the threat of nuclear terrorism” since many other people have pointed out the foolishness of trying to conduct a “war on terror.” It doesn’t really work any better for liberal internationalists who want to fight their own “war on terror” than it does for the neoconservatives who created the slogan. But I digress.

What I dislike about these summits is the inevitable rhetoric that flows out of the politicians and is dutifully repeated by journalists who understand how to sensationalize a story with just a few quotes.

Stephen Collinson of Agence France-Presse (AFP) has this article online with the racy headline, “US still fixated by nuclear terror.”

“What we have seen is increasing evidence of intentions… it is not just Al-Qaeda, it is other organisations as well,” said Sharon Squassoni, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It is pretty shocking how much material is out there. 1440 tonnes of highly enriched uranium, 500 tonnes of separated plutonium (which is) weapons ready.”…

You have dozens of nations coming together behind the shared goal of securing nuclear materials around the world, so that they can never fall into the hands of terrorists,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.

Failure, he said, would result in “frankly, … the gravest national security threat that the American people could face.”

Now it is an election year, and there is bound to be the usual ridiculous rhetoric coming from the offices of those who are intent on becoming a political leader. That’s to be expected. But the fixation isn’t on the actual capability of terrorists to cause a nuclear incident; rather, the fixation is on the possibility that it could someday happen.

This is the difference between fact-based risk management on existing hazards and paranoid overreaction to perceived threats.

If one were to read the most recent unclassified report to Congress on the acquisition of technology relating to weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions, it does have a section on CBRN terrorism (note, not WMD terrorism).  The intelligence community has a very toned down statement that says “several terrorist groups … probably remain interested in [CBRN] capabilities, but not necessarily in all four of those capabilities. … mostly focusing on low-level chemicals and toxins.”

They’re talking about terrorists getting industrial chemicals and making ricin toxin, not nuclear weapons. And yes, Ms. Squassoni, it is primarily al Qaeda that the U.S. government worries about, no one else.

The trend of worldwide terrorism continues to remain in the realm of conventional attacks. In 2010, there were more than 11,500 terrorist attacks, affecting about 50,000 victims including almost 13,200 deaths. None of them were caused by CBRN hazards. Of the 11,000 terrorist attacks in 2009, none were caused by CBRN hazards. Of the 11,800 terrorist attacks in 2008, none were caused by CBRN hazards.

And yet, somehow, the United Kingdom’s government now believes that there is a significant likelihood that “some day,” terrorists will acquire CBRN weapons.

“Al Qaeda has a long-held desire to obtain and use CBRN devices. Without continued global efforts to reduce vulnerabilities in the security of material and information, there is a significant likelihood that terrorists will at some point acquire CBRN capability,” the document, approved by Britain’s National Security Council, said.

“Nuclear terrorism is now a real and global threat,” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who will lead Britain’s delegation in Seoul, said in a statement.

No, Mr. Clegg, it is not a “real and global threat.”

Yes, nuclear terrorism could happen, and certainly there are logical steps that responsible governments need to take in order to reduce that possibility. But it’s disingenuous to say that nuclear terrorism is the “gravest national security threat” or a “real and global threat” when there are zero indications that terrorist groups are succeeding in obtaining any fissile material or in building an improvised nuclear device.

It’s just not that great a threat, when one considers the very real threat of nuclear weapon states that have actively developed and deployed weapon systems that could be used against United States or United Kingdom security interests.

I’m all in favor of securing nuclear material and cooperating with other nations on the issue of terrorism in general. It’s a responsible thing to do. But I suggest that it can be done without overly hyping the threat to be a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

It just isn’t that significant a threat as compared to public health threats or the dangers of conventional warfare and terrorism.

And if President Obama is serious about securing nuclear materials, I would love to see him start at home – by opening up the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository and securing the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste that currently exists at more than a hundred nuclear power plants within the United States.

March 26, 2012

Nuclear Security Summit

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 26, 2012

The big national security event this week is the Nuclear Security Summit being held in South Korea. A few stories and opinion pieces have made the funny papers in the run up to the event.  Unfortunately, for such a serious issue there has not been an equal amount of attention paid.  I understand that those who do not believe in the nuclear terrorism threat will feel justified, but that ground has already been covered in depth on this blog.

Instead, for those interested I’d just like to point out a link that provide background information I feel is useful going into the Summit:

Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has set up a website that includes a threat briefing, scorecard, Q&A, and more: http://www.nuclearsummit.org/

What I personally hope for is some attention paid to the idea that increased investment in recovery can help counter both the intentional radiological threat and nuclear accident issues: http://www.hlswatch.com/2011/03/06/dealing-with-dirty-bombs/

 

March 5, 2012

Increased chances of Iranian conflict does not equal increased radiation threat

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment — by Arnold Bogis on March 5, 2012

Normally I would welcome any reason to extol the virtues of brushing up on your nuclear and radiological-related preparedness planning. However, I strangely find myself wanting to push back on some nuclear-alarmism that I’ve come across lately from usually professional and restrained quarters.

To be clear before I begin: I believe nuclear terrorism has been and remains a real threat; that a dirty bomb is a question of when and not if; and that the two are entirely different animals that look similar in the same manner that one’s house cat may occasionally remind you of a lion in the wild…but not really.

The meme I suspect is emerging is that heightened tensions in the Middle East, in particular the increased threat of conflict with Iran over it’s nuclear program, is increasing the chances that the U.S. will either be the victim of a nuclear or radiological attack or that we may be involved in treating radiation-related casualties originating from hostilities in the Middle East. The mistaken perceptions involve current Iranian capabilities and the results of any possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, particularly by Israeli forces.

First capabilities: no evidence has been made public that Iran has enriched uranium beyond 20%.  While that gets them a lot closer to having the material for nuclear weapons (it is a strange fact, but enriching uranium up to 20% is more difficult than taking it from 20% to 90% and above, which is generally considered weapons grade; as Harvard’s Graham Allison has put it: “In effect, having uranium enriched at 20 percent takes Iran 90 yards along the football field to bomb-grade material.”), it does not give them a nuclear capability at this moment.  Barring work at a secret enrichment facility, this means that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon to use (whether directly or through allied terrorist groups) against any potential attacker.

Yes, this could change in the future through any number of potential scenarios.  Yes, there are serious concerns for U.S. national security if Iran was to become a nuclear state.  The most likely of these would not involve Iran directly attacking the U.S with a nuclear weapon.  Many others have sunk their teeth into this topic and debated various outcomes.

A dirty bomb could be a possibility, but in taking stock of that particular threat the pieces don’t point toward any special Iranian capability. Neither the low-enriched or high-enriched uranium that Iran is producing, or any of the stages of pre-enriched material, would make particularly effective dirty bomb material.  Uranium is not highly radioactive, in fact one can handle highly enriched uranium with nothing more than a simple gloved hand. In other words, the Iranian nuclear program does not add to their capability to carry out or assist others in carrying out a dirty bomb attack.

An Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could potentially embolden, radicalize, or otherwise incentivize terrorists to carry out a dirty bomb attack.  One can imagine a desire to carry out some sort of event involving radiation in retaliation.  Yet the particulars of Iran’s nuclear program do not affect the odds of this occurring, nor would the products be particularly helpful.

If homeland security officials at all levels want to prevent a dirty bomb attack, in addition to planning and exercising to respond and recover from any such incident (deterrence through denial of goals), they can take stock of the radioactive sources in their own jurisdictions and connect with the owners and licensees about security and safety. Every big city has potential dirty bomb ingredients without the necessity of terrorists attempting to smuggle in Iranian radioactive sources.

The second layer of concern seems to center on the possibility that hostilities between Iran and Israel, and maybe the U.S., would involve populations being exposed to high levels of radioactivity.  However, at this point in Iran’s nuclear development that is also unlikely.

Despite the bluster out of some corners, Israel is not going to use nuclear weapons it does not officially acknowledge having to destroy a nascent nuclear capability the goal of which is contested by various world powers.  Nuclear weapons are political weapons that are best used to deter nuclear attack and invasion.  It is often pointed out that a reason Iran might want to either develop a breakout capability or the weapons themselves is that they witnessed what happened to Iraq and Libya and what has not happened to North Korea.

An Israeli nuclear strike on Iran without direct nuclear provocation would likely result in their achieving North Korean-like pariah status.  Instead, if they decided it was in their national security interest to strike the Iranian nuclear program it would involve conventional weapons.  These bombs may cause dispersion of nuclear material, but as I mentioned before the uranium involved would not be highly radioactive and the effects would be more toxic and less radioactive.

Would there be detectable raised levels of radiation in the surrounding areas  following such an attack?  Likely. Are we talking about an Iranian Fukushima?  Probably not.

Israel could decide to bomb the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, but this would do little to stop any weapons program as light water power reactors are poorly suited for the production of plutonium for bombs and this particular one is under stringent IAEA safeguards.  In addition, it would earn the ire of potentially sympathetic Gulf nations who may bear the brunt of the radiation released.

Following any strike by Israel on its nuclear program, Iran is judged likely to attack Israel with missiles.  Whether launched from Iranian territory or by allied groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, some of these weapons may be targeted at the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona.  It is possible that the reactor would sustain enough damage to release radiation, but these facilities are not soft nor large targets.  The relatively unsophisticated missiles involved would have to be lucky in both hitting the target and achieving enough damage to release any radiation.  Only in the worst case might there be a call to evacuate any casualties to the United States due to radiation injury.

So to end this already too long foray into predicting the results of events that may never occur, let me just reiterate:

  • homeland security officials at all levels should worry about the security of radioactive sources within their jurisidcitions and make sure that they are prepared to respond and recover from any dirty bomb attack;
  • yes Dorothy, a nuclear terrorist attack is possible, if not likely, and should be regarded as a national catastrophic event planned for on a regional basis including non-traditional partners (in FEMA-speak this is a MOM event requiring a WOC response);
  • in the short-to-medium term, events regarding Iran’s nuclear program will not directly impact the risks of a radiological or nuclear attack upon the U.S.

March 3, 2012

Fukushima on PBS Frontline

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 3, 2012

This past week, PBS’ acclaimed show Frontline put a spotlight on the story of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown.  You can watch the entire episode, as well read the supplemental materials, here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/japans-nuclear-meltdown/

It is a moving story and I highly recommend watching the episode.  It made me think about how we rate or judge performance in catastrophic incidents.  It is often easy to look back and critique, but for those working in the midst of crises who operate on limited data and without the benefit of a strategic vantage point the decisions are not so clear. In this case it seems that the process resulted in (eventually) the correct calls being made.  A different decision at any of various points may have resulted in the evacuation of almost 30 million people in and around Tokyo.

What has the U.S. faced recently that comes close?  Are responsible organizations, in and out of government as well as at every level, ready to face such a challenge?

I hope so.  But I wouldn’t bet my own money on it.

February 27, 2012

Nuclear blast simulator: NUKEMAP

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on February 27, 2012

Recently the web saw the emergence of a new online nuclear detonation simulator: NUKEMAP.

Created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the American Institute of Physics and blogger at “Restricted Data The Nuclear Secrecy Blog,” this simulator is the best example of an admittedly small class of apps. It allows one to pick the target and yield of the device, either through drop down boxes or by entering unique values.  For the sake of simplicity, it defaults with an idealized air burst which eliminates the computational messiness of modeling the influence of unique geography and weather.

So this isn’t your National Lab/FEMA 3-D model tailored to individual cityscapes.  But it gives you a general idea about the varying effects of different sizes of nuclear weapons.

The features, in Alex’s own words:

  • Easily draggable target marker (which has an adorable little atom on it)!
  • Bright, stomach-churning colors indicating major negative effects of atomic detonations!
  • Effects described include zones of 500 rem exposure, major overpressures, and fire! Plus, the legend breaks these down into easy-to-understand descriptions of what they mean for your average person caught inside of them.
  • Lots of pre-sets for both places to drop them (I didn’t want to discriminate) and yields of historical weapons! It has never been easier to put a 50Mt H-bomb on the Eiffel Tower.
  • Automatically tries to drop the bomb on wherever Google thinks you are accessing the Internet from (based on your IP address)!
  • You can link to specific detonations and send them to your friends to enjoy forever!
  • Automatic zooming to make sure that all of a given nuke’s effects fit within the view window! (This can be disabled.)
  • More historically contextualized than your average web app!

While obviously trying to inject some levity in the most serious of subjects, among Alex’s stated goals for this project was to visually explain the difference between fission and fusion weapons effects:

I have in the past made maps of this sort for use in teaching, when I want to emphasize how “impressive” the first hydrogen bomb was when compared to the first atomic bombs. If you dropped a Fat Man-style bomb onto downtown Boston, the results wouldn’t be pretty, but the effects would be limited to the immediate area surrounding the peninsula, primarily. (In other words, I would tell the students, Harvard is probably not too bad off, fallout excepting, but MIT is completely fried.) Do the same thing with an Ivy Mike-sized bomb and you’ve set houses on fire all the way out to Concord (a visual argument, when done with appropriate build-up and theatricality, that never failed to result in a horrified gasp from the auditorium of undergrads). It becomes quite clear why many of the atomic scientists of the day considered H-bombs to be exclusively genocidal weapons.

For homeland security planners what this simulator makes vivid is how the threat has changed since the end of the Cold War. Multiple Soviet warheads in the hundred kiloton or megaton range is a totally different story than a single nuclear terrorist device around the size of the Hiroshima bomb or even lower.  While any local and state response will be immediately overwhelmed, the current threats are still national  catastrophes than can and should be planned for at a regional level.

January 9, 2012

Anniversary of a nuclear security paradigm shift

Filed under: Catastrophes,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Strategy — by Arnold Bogis on January 9, 2012

Last Wednesday, January 4 marked the five year anniversary of the landmark Wall Street Journal op-ed, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons:”

Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations. Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.

We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal, beginning with the measures outlined above.

The bi-partisan authors of these words, referred to in arms control circles as “The Four Horsemen,” are not traditional peace activists or long-time nuclear abolitionists.  Instead, their identity as realists, hawks, and Cold War warriors is what lent such weight to the argument for nuclear zero:

Mr. Shultz, a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, was secretary of state from 1982 to 1989. Mr. Perry was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997. Mr. Kissinger, chairman of Kissinger Associates, was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977. Mr. Nunn is former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The desire to rid the world of nuclear bombs is nearly as old as the weapons themselves. What was new about this particular call was not simply the sketch of concrete steps that could be taken at the beginning of such a journey, but the gravitas of the messengers.  In the abstract it seems almost silly to think that such ideas cannot inhabit a respected space in the relevant conversation without a blessing from above, but at the same time these “wise men” provided the rhetorical room for such a conversation to expand from a minority view to a wide-ranging debate across the foreign policy, international security, and defense worlds.

What does this have to do with homeland security?  There is the obvious impact that comes with a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons that includes a reduced risk of nuclear terrorism, accidental launch, and war with all it’s worldwide implications.  However, reference to this particular anniversary in other venues made me both appreciate the potential coercive power of such an opinion piece and made me wonder if there had been anythings similar in the homeland security sphere. If not, as I suspect, what could have a comparable effect?

Stephen Flynn and the idea of “resilience” is the only candidate that springs to mind.  Yet it introduced a new concept, one which in my opinion has been twisted into various shapes to fit various needs and definitions.  The Four Horsemen did not conjure a “world without nuclear weapons” out of nothingness, but instead by lending their voices to a relatively marginalized idea shifted the terms of conversation and analysis on which nuclear policy is grounded. Perhaps a true paradigm shift.

Are there possible candidates, authors and topics, in what is considered “homeland security” that could result in such a radical shift?

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