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Nuclear Terrorism: What’s at Stake?

The original article and videotape of the May 29 panel can be found at: http://americansecurityproject.org/blog/2013/event-recap-nuclear-terrorism-whats-at-stake/.

Article post by Ollie Engebretson

The American Security Project hosted “Nuclear Terrorism: What’s at Stake,” a panel discussion examining the nature of the threat that nuclear terror poses and potential opportunities for the U.S. to secure vulnerable ports and combat the risks of a nuclear event. The discussion built upon issues discussed in ASP’s recently published Fact Sheet on shipping container security.

Participating in the discussion were the Honorable Jay M. Cohen, a retired Admiral of the U.S. Navy and current Principal of The Chertoff Group, David Waller, former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Stephen Flynn, Co-Director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute at Northeastern University, Dr. Stanton Sloane, CEO of Decision Sciences International Corporation, and moderator BGen. Stephen Cheney, USMC (Ret.) ASP CEO.After an introduction of the panel, Adm. Cohen began by framing the conversation within the context of a “threat roadmap” that graphs the relative likelihoods and consequences of different terrorist attacks. Some in the audience may have had qualms with the ordering, but he assured that the image was meant to be dynamic.

Given the progress made in non-proliferation and the safeguarding of nuclear materials since the Nunn-Lugar legislation passed in 1992, Cohen notes obtaining nuclear material has grown increasingly difficult. The threat of nuclear terrorism remains “inconceivable but not impossible,” and potentially disastrous.

Waller continued by describing the IAEA’s role in securing ports across the globe. He argued that “international cooperation is essential” for any effort to combat nuclear terrorism and effectively approach the so-called “nuclear dilemma.” Nuclear technology holds incredible potential for a wide array of industries, yet the same material and technology required can be harnessed for catastrophic destruction.

He thus highlighted the support that the IAEA offers to all governments through the International Nuclear Security Advisory Service, which assesses states’ nuclear security capabilities and offer assistance. U.S. ports are only the end points in a global shipping and transportation system.

Taking a more systemic approach, Dr. Flynn looked at the broader ramifications of a nuclear attack to the US and global economy. He points out how any attack carried out through a U.S. port, regardless of the scope, would create a “problem of risk looking unbounded.” Nobody would know the true extent or nature of the threat. Flynn remarked that “we’ll have put the entire global intermodal transportation system into gridlock” with catastrophic economic consequences and “no plan today for how to get it back up and running.”

The panel offered the entire city of Boston shutting down after the recent bombings and the grounding off all air traffic for a week following the September, 11th attacks in 2001 as telling examples of this phenomenon.

According to Flynn, the tools that exist today cannot effectively address this threat, and little effort has been made to examine how to respond to attacks that could easily cripple global transport.

Finally Dr. Sloane discussed what role technology should play and how the U.S. can foster an environment that encourages the development of port security technology in the private sector. As long as the government creates the proper environment, “the private market will respond,” limiting the need for large appropriations and public funding.

However the technology must be passive in that it is compatible and sensitive to the global transport system, not disruptive. The panel highlighted Decision Sciences’ Multi-Mode Passive Detection System as an important breakthrough in ports’ ability to scan shipping containers and transport ships.

Following the panel, questions were raised as to the economic viability of implementing this type of technology across the globe and to whether or not resources should be devoted elsewhere.  Dr. Flynn emphasized that if there is an appropriate economic case to be made, the private firms will pursue such technology. However the discourse on nuclear security and the vulnerability of U.S. ports has yet to appropriately address the systemic nature of the threat.

The panel offered an in-depth examination of the risk that unsecure ports hold in an age where nuclear terrorism seems to pose a greater and greater threat. National security strategies must recognize this risk and develop preventative policies and response scenarios that acknowledge the massive, system-wide consequences of nuclear terrorism.