Ship searched for nuclear material
September 12, 2002 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Ship searched for nuclear material after it was diverted from New York harbor, reports MS-NBC. Apparently a Department of Energy Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) was involved. Initial report states that elevated gamma and neutron emissions were detected.

Aside from this report--which is unconfirmed--how likely is such an attack? How do we deal with thousands of container ships, each holding hundreds of anonymous containers? This kind of attack scares me much more than airplanes dropping out of the sky.
posted by mooncrow (17 comments total)
There are a million different ways your life could end, at any second. Worry about every possibility just leads to a miserable life. Let the people who's job it is to worry about this stuff, do it.
posted by Dark Messiah at 10:19 AM on September 12, 2002

My contacts within the transportation sector have told me that there is very significant concern about delivery of weapons of mass destruction using a container ship. Tens of millions of containers move in and out of North American ports each year and security has been, by practicality, lax. It is a disaster waiting to happen.
posted by tranquileye at 10:23 AM on September 12, 2002

I am just glad they have techniques of detecting this kind of thing. I hope they are using it to the max, you would hate to have the kind of thing happen where we only take action and invest time and money in this kind of detection after an attack.
posted by cell divide at 10:33 AM on September 12, 2002

Question: if I place a nuke in a cargo container, and then remove it, could the container remain radioactive? This almost sounds more like trace amounts of something were left in the container to scare us.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:34 AM on September 12, 2002

Hmmm... if they're detecting neutrons as well as gammas, I think that means the material is likely to be plutonium. A dirty bomb isn't likely to use neutron emitters, and bomb-wise, U-235 is a weak neutron emitter, IIRC, so it probably wouldn't have been detected. Is there a nuclear chemist in the house?

Of course, that's all based on a big IF -- I'd bet on a false positive, at least for the neutrons. (I'm surprised that they have neutron detectors for law-enforcement use at all.)

ParisParamus: If you irradiate a container, you can make it somewhat radioactive, depending on how you irradiate it -- neutrons, in particular, can make materials radioactive. However, it's considerably easier to leave traces around than to try to activate something. But, of course, if you're only dealing with trace amounts, it probably wouldn't have been detected in the first place.
posted by ptermit at 10:56 AM on September 12, 2002

ptermit: You would have to irradiate the hell out of certain acceptable materials to indeed make them radioactive. This reminds me of the kid in Michigan (?) who was trying to make a breeder reactor and succeeded using low level radioisotopes to bombard other materials with neutrons. Over time this can be successful, but as I said, it takes more than just being in the presence of a radioisotope.

Just for reference, gamma rays can be produced by exposing certain materials to high energy beta emitters (e.g. P32, which is used extensively for labelling DNA) via the Bremstraluung effect, which basically means the beta rays knock electrons out of their orbitals which are then released as gammas. This was always a concern in the lab... especially when my klutzy self was working in the hot lab and spilling things... Programming is so much less dangerous to my health and that of my coworkers!
posted by FullFrontalNerdity at 11:04 AM on September 12, 2002 has been, by practicality, lax. It is a disaster waiting to happen.

In fact, ABC News recently did an experiment to prove this very point.
posted by originalname37 at 11:12 AM on September 12, 2002

Forget gamma rays, America(ns) are sorely in need of a psy-ops detector.
posted by BentPenguin at 11:43 AM on September 12, 2002

Here's an article from Harper's describing the kid and his reactor that FullFrontal mentioned.
posted by pitchblende at 11:57 AM on September 12, 2002

Trying to detect radiation from cargo containers is probably a good idea, as it would make smuggling a bomb into the country harder. But wouldn't a determined smuggler line the container with lead/water/whatever?

If the bomb is the size of the Hiroshima bomb, that would leave a lot of room for insulation one would think. Anyone out there who knows how thick the lining would have to reduce radiation to below detectable levels?
posted by Triplanetary at 12:37 PM on September 12, 2002

This disturbing article in The New Republic describes just how half-hearted and unfocused the government's efforts to prevent nuclear smuggling really are. This is state of affairs is infuriating.
posted by homunculus at 12:54 PM on September 12, 2002

Tri, I don't think, for security reasons, that we'll be able to find out what "detectable" means in this case. After all, lead only stops some radiation.

In this particular case, given contradictory tests, and little physical evidence, I suspect they may well find nothing out of the ordinary. (Reuters' latest suggests they were stopped for a stowaway search, but that may only have been a ruse.)

The term of art for this has become "conex bomb", and it was discussed in the great Bill Keller article from the NYT Magazine. Since only 2% of containers are subject to any kind of human inspection, the odds for a person with the means for a bomb like this are actually pretty good, lead shielding or no. If the inspection won't take place until you're in port, and that's where you need to be ... even that isn't much of a deterrent. I don't think determining the real-world odds of an attack like this is something we can do, but it's probably pretty small compared to jaywalking or smoking. And a dirty bomb is probably much more likely, by 10 or 100 times, than a nuclear detonation.

The detection process is still a bit of a black art; only this winter, Lawrence Livermore labs began studying detection means and equipment. Here's one thing they've come up with, a quasi-portable detector (maybe the word should be 'luggable'). Berkeley press release {PDF}. From what I've seen they're using these at border crossings already, but still only a fraction are actually scanned. And a little background from late spring Customs strategy change.
posted by dhartung at 1:08 PM on September 12, 2002

Dark Messiah: That would be good advice if we could rest assured that the people who's job it is to worry about this stuff are actually able to do it. But from what I've gathered, the NEST and others charged with this job are underfunded to be able really to cover all US ocean ports. Along with all the air cargo ports. Oh, and all the roads coming in to the US. And, the 5,000 plus miles of border with Mexico and Canada. Plus every inlet, harbor and beach around the continent.

I'm not worried about everything. I'm just worried about the stuff that could make a lot of people have a really bad day--which is what a nuke in a US city would do.
posted by mooncrow at 1:14 PM on September 12, 2002

the best part of this story is that i found it doing my normal perusal through the various newspaper sites, et al, and came across it late last night. then i saw it finally on msnbc and others. it's not even on the local website that i sometimes dig things up on. i live about 35 minutes south of where this was, and will drive past it going home tonight as i drove past it this morning. fascinates me. i'm not really that worried about it, i just find it interesting that it "conveniently" doesn't get much press locally.

it's kinda like the 9-1-1 lottery thing - it's now major headline on msnbc and a few other sites, since the buzz flew around today. all about eyeballs, isn't it.
posted by djspicerack at 2:46 PM on September 12, 2002

Don't you mean Nukular?
posted by zekinskia at 3:58 PM on September 12, 2002

Yeah, it sure is scary to realize that there are people out there who could nuke cities.

People like terrorists...and Americans.

Of course, the only nuclear bombs ever exploded over cities were dropped by we Americans. Of course, for generations we've exported to the world arms, nuclear technology, and our own doctrines and justification for violence to serve "our interests".

Reap the whirlwind.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 4:37 PM on September 12, 2002

Last time I looked on the web, about five years ago, there was technology out there for scanning shipping containers and trucks for nuclear materials. If you don't know about it already, you probably don't need it. My take is that we're looking at a situation a bit like the problem of screening all baggage in an airport ... just how thorough do you need to be for optimal results? This question is likely to keep IEEE members and standards committees busy for some time.
posted by sheauga at 7:39 AM on September 14, 2002

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