Response Team Preps For Nuclear Terrorism Threat

In Depth

A report released by a congressional commission earlier this month says it is "more likely than not" that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack by the end of 2013. The report said the use of a biological weapon that could include something like deadly anthrax bacteria is most likely.

The debate over whether terrorists will begin attacking with nuclear weapons has been going on for a long time. Some say the threat is real, while others are convinced it is overblown. But a federal report that surfaced earlier this month takes a stand — it says the risk is growing.

The conclusions of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism are alarming. In its report, the commission concluded there is a high probability the U.S. can expect a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction sometime before 2013. The report was shared with Congress and the White House — as well as with a small group of nuclear scientists and specialists who have been hard at work for years to make sure nuclear terrorists do not strike the United States.

"This is not a theoretical game here," says Tom D'Agostino, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for safeguarding the American stockpile of nuclear weapons and for preventing nuclear terrorism. "It doesn't take a lot of highly enriched uranium or plutonium to make a bomb. The consequences of that are severe. We do know through our intelligence sources that there is great interest by certain people of attaining this material. And I'm not about to wait until they get enough quantities to make it to set up the systems in place to shut this down early."

One of the systems D'Agostino is referring to is the Radiological Assistance Program, headquartered at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. It's a component of the Nuclear Emergency Support Team, known informally as the NEST. Recently, the team put some of its technology on display at Andrews, including improvised nuclear devices and a wide range of sensing devices designed to pick up radiation that dangerous nuclear material might emit.

"This will allow you to walk around and pinpoint the source a little more closely," D'Agostino says. "What it gives the user is verbal feedback in a pair of headphones. In this case, we have a speaker set up."

The source of the radiation for the demonstration is a small container of plutonium.

A Test Run

The specialists insist on anonymity for security purposes, but they are willing to talk freely about what they do. For a more realistic exercise, one of the team members has hidden a radioactive source in a nearby parking lot.

The team jumps into an SUV outfitted with detection equipment. As they drive slowly among the parked cars, the equipment begins to pick up stronger readings.

"We are not necessarily going to hear the alarm until we passed it," one specialist says. "If it's a pretty weak source, we may not hear that alarm until that person has passed us." Suspicion eventually falls on a few parked cars.

In a real-world incident, the team would be accompanied by local police or FBI agents. "We don't wear bulletproof vests," the specialist says. "We don't carry weapons, so we absolutely have to make sure that that area is safe for us to go in and ID."

To narrow the search further, one member of the team hoists a heavy backpack over his shoulders. He will walk among the suspect cars, all the time listening in an earpiece for alarms.

"We always walk at a normal pace — we try not to put attention to ourselves," one of the specialists says. Near the source, the beep changes tone. "That's how we know that we're getting closer to what we're looking for."

Finally, the team concludes that the source of the suspicious radiation is a black Jeep Liberty. Someone brings in another sensor that can actually identify the substance emitting the radiation.

"This gives you a nuclide listing of cobalt-60 with an eight confidence level. That means it says with pretty good confidence that, yes, it's cobalt-60," another specialist says. Cobalt-60 is a radioactive isotope routinely used in nuclear medicine. "We also have another source in there which [it] has not been able to identify. If we send the spectrum off to triage, they will be able to tell us what it is."

The team can upload the data by satellite to scientists at Los Alamos and other nuclear labs in New Mexico and California and receive quick identification of exactly what the danger is.

Monitoring For Threats

These teams respond to a wide variety of threats and dangers. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the teams used aircraft to map radiation hot spots in New Orleans, to make sure no radioactive medicine sources had been carried away by the floods. None were.

The equipment is not perfect, and the response teams are relatively small and few in number, but their capabilities are steadily growing.

"It'd be nice to get to a system that's foolproof, if you will," D'Agostino says. One that's "easier to deploy, doesn't require highly trained operators. And we're not quite there yet."

NEST teams regularly deploy to what they call national security events. The next such event will be the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, where unobtrusive team members will be wandering through the crowds listening for the alarms that might signal a nuclear threat.

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