The Federal Government, and in particular the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is tasked with a heavy lift to protect our nation from attacks. To achieve this mission, agencies are focusing their efforts on staying ahead of growing nuclear and radiological threats following a layered, defense-in-depth strategy, spanning from the enhancement of fixed security systems at U.S. borders to the integration of scalable, mobile detection equipment to form, and inform, the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture.

Over the past few decades, the possibility of nuclear and radiological attack hasn’t diminished. However, the sophistication in which these ever-present threats can be delivered has evolved over time. Today, the threat could take many forms, from the use of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles, as threatened by North Korea, to smaller, crude yet easily obtained and weaponized nuclear devices smuggled across the nation’s borders or even constructed in the U.S. from stolen nuclear material, as well as medical or industrial radioactive sources.

As nuclear and radiological threats become increasingly prevalent, it’s imperative that our nation is armed with the capabilities needed to keep pace. To achieve this goal, we must take a thoughtful approach by analyzing the evolution of these threats, understanding the current capabilities of both state and non-state adversaries, and to the extent possible, predicting how weapons may be constructed and delivered to targets in the homeland.

A Historical Snapshot of Radiation & Nuclear Threats

Although nuclear warfare dates back to World War II, weapons with a more local-impact reemerged as a high-priority risk for our nation after the 9/11 attacks. Sixteen years later, they still remain some of the most game-changing threats we can envision. In the past few months alone, San Francisco has planned for the management and detection of nuclear fallout, the port of Charleston, S.C. has had operations severely disrupted due to a supposed ‘dirty bomb’ on board a docked freighter, and US forces in Mosul have combed the city looking for ‘orphaned’ radioactive sources known to have been present in a medical research facility before the city fell to ISIS.

The most severe nuclear and radiological threat remains a nuclear warhead delivered by an air-dropped bomb or ballistic missile. Thankfully, such systems – warheads as well as delivery mechanisms – remain extremely complex and expensive to build and remain the province of nation states with substantial technical and financial resources, or the willingness to devote much of their GDP to the effort. Protection against them is the function of diplomacy and defense, but homeland security and first responders would have a role to play after a detonation in understanding the spread of contamination and managing the impact.

Today’s Spectrum of Threats

Smuggled nuclear weapons represent a less complex endeavor for non-state actors. Once sufficient nuclear material is illicitly obtained, a nuclear weapon is not beyond the capabilities of well-organized and funded terrorist groups. From there, smuggling the device into the U.S. by sea, road or rail would mean that there was less need for precision, miniaturization and hardening to the rigors of high speed flight. Unless an adversary could figure out a way to smuggle multiple bombs simultaneously the overall impact on the U.S. would likely be less than for a missile strike, but would still be devastating for the city where it was detonated; not to mention the effects on our economy. Stopping this sort of weapon from entering the nation’s borders is a key function of the Dept of Homeland Security and, in particular, its Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and Customs & Border Protection.

Radiological Dispersal Devices – also known as ‘dirty bombs’ – are the easier weapons to build and can easily be in the hands of an external group such as ISIS or a domestic terrorist organization. At their core, they use conventional explosives wrapped with highly radioactive material – such as can be found in hospitals and many industrial inspection processes. This material would be spread over a localized area where the bomb detonates, causing mass panic and potential long-term health risks. We need to consider how this threat can evolve, particularly with the emerging prevalence of low-cost drones as a potential delivery method.

At the lowest level of sophistication are Radiological Emission Devices – a strong radioactive source concealed at a frequented location, such as a stadium, a restaurant or office building. Such a device could go undetected until local hospitals report admitting an alarming number of patients with acute radiation sickness. Similarly, even relatively weak radioactive sources – either ‘orphan sources’ or radiological material from a medical or industrial process – can cause great disruption when introduced into an industrial or commercial supply chain.

Increasingly, metal suppliers will use a proportion of scrap metal in each new batch of material produced. A radioactive source introduced, by accident or deliberately, can lead to a contamination of the entire plant and product. In numerous cases, customs agencies have impounded goods such as radioactive elevator buttons or handbags with radioactive buckles. Whilst health effects would be much less than for the threats above, the potential for public unease is obvious and the economic impact on any company with such a contaminated supply chain could be catastrophic.

Regardless of their type and size, radiological and nuclear weapons pose a threat to our nation’s security. Fortunately, the U.S. is arguably the best protected country in the world against this type of threat.

Understanding the Importance of Radiation Detection

Since 9/11, DHS has installed thousands of radiation detectors at the nation’s ports and land border crossings, and is now engaged in a major program to upgrade those systems. It works closely with first responders across the country and has recently tested some very innovative detectors to help monitor and uncover the presence and location of a radiological device in a city. DHS has a large scale program of research and works closely with the Department of Defense in initiatives like the ‘SIGMA’ Program, which has succeeded in deploying novel technologies delivering higher performance at a tenth of the typical cost.

DARPA’s SIGMA program—whose goal is to prevent attacks involving radiological “dirty bombs” and other nuclear threats—concluded its biggest and longest test deployment of vehicle-mounted radiation detectors in Washington, D.C., in February. For approximately seven months starting in July 2016, the fleet of D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services ambulances was outfitted with DARPA-developed nuclear and radiological detectors, providing the first city-scale, dynamic, real-time map of background radiation levels throughout the Capital as well as identifying any unusual spikes that could indicate a threat.

Importantly, the Federal Government recognizes that the smuggling of radioactive and nuclear materials is an international problem and not just one for the U.S. For current threats it has worked with partner nations to take action to reduce the risk. For instance, it has evaluated technologies developed from scientific breakthroughs at CERN, world’s largest nuclear physics lab and works closely with European counterparts in the Illicit Trafficking Radiation Assessment Program.

The recent budget review issued by DHS’ Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) continues to identify a variety of radiological and nuclear threats to the homeland, but with the help of next generation radiation detection systems, the Federal government can proactively identify, prevent, and intercept these threats. As a result of these scalable solutions, agencies are able to stay ahead of adversaries while also keeping citizens safe.

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