U.S. Ports Want More Action on Dirty Bomb Prevention

nuclear reactor

Published Jul 6, 2016 7:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

The threat of terrorist smuggling at U.S. ports appears to be increasing, says the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), who wants mechanisms to prevent cyber terrorism and illegal nuclear materials from being trafficked through ports intensified. 

Nuclear smuggling can involve small quantities of highly enriched uranium or plutonium that could be used to build an improvised nuclear device. Additionally, radiological materials, such as cesium-137, cobalt-60, and strontium-90, can be combined with conventional explosives to build a radiological dispersal device, often referred to as a dirty bomb.

According to a nuclear and radiological material trafficking database managed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), approximately 2,700 cases of illicit trafficking of such material have been confirmed as of December 31, 2014. These cases were reported by more than 100 countries that voluntarily contribute to IAEA’s database. 

Many confirmed cases involving the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, including weapons-usable material, have been traced to material that originated in countries of the former Soviet Union and had fallen outside of those governments’ control.

Maryland Port Administration Security Director Dave Espie, a retired FBI agent and former National Security Agency Special Agent, will testify on July 7 on behalf of the AAPA at a joint hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, and the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.

Espie says in his testimony that the threat of maritime terrorist smuggling appears to be increasing, possibly in correlation with the flight of Syrian refugees to Europe. Recently, a stowaway on a roll-on rolloff vessel destined for Baltimore was located by the ship’s crew and taken into custody by Homeland Security Investigations. The stowaway admitted that he boarded the vessel while it was docked at a German port.

Approximately one week prior to this event, a shipping lines manager in Baltimore advised that his lines had experienced several stowaway attempts by Syrian nationals in Germany as well. Directors of port security in the United States are not routinely granted a security clearance with the federal government and hence, are not provided classified briefings regarding threats to their ports, says Espie.

The suspects of maritime nuclear smuggling efforts are numerous, says Espie. “The actions and aggressiveness of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are challenging all aspects of our port security procedures. The threat from ISIL emerges on several fronts. First, the size of ISIL’s force is substantial. Second, ISIL is not a congruent entity. Its leadership remains in a fractured state and subsequently, sub-factions form that are very difficult to identify or trace. Third, ISIL’s use of the internet and related systems to recruit both actual soldiers and lone wolves has proven to be extremely successful.”

Maritime nuclear smuggling “could ultimately impact the safety and security of the United States if not addressed in a cohesive and expedited manner,” says Espie in his testimony. 

Espie believes there is a need for sound diplomatic relationships with nations that cooperate with the U.S. to secure their own nuclear materials, and the need for them to assist in countering ambitions of nuclear countries intent on inflicting harm with their fissionable materials. 

In his prepared statement, Espie says that the U.S. strategy to prevent maritime nuclear smuggling should use a holistic approach that incorporates diplomatic engagement, utilizes intelligence community assets (human, cyber and technical), focuses on port security protocols (both federally mandated and those imposed by port operators), increases Port Security Grant funding to ensure ports are brought up to and remain in federal compliance, and appropriately invest in federal agencies like Customs and Border Patrol to ensure current and future legislative mandates are properly executed.

His testimony encourages Members of Congress to continue funding ports and that Customs and Border Patrol assign more than one percent of its new hires to seaports, which was the approximate staffing ratio of Customs and Border Patrol new hires to ports in fiscal year 2015.

In June, the United States Government Accountability Office submitted a report to the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate on U.S. actions combatting nuclear smuggling. The report confirms that international nuclear and radiological smuggling threatens the security of the United States. 

The report highlights the global nature of the issues, and states that, according to officials from the Department of Homeland Security, detecting and interdicting such materials as close to the original source - and as far away from the United States - as possible, increases the probability of successfully deterring nuclear smuggling into the United States and strengthens national security.

The testimony is available here.

The report is available here.