Radioactive Decay

Some 30 years ago, I was the intelligence analyst for a large Southern California police department, and had an opportunity to be briefed by members of a secret outfit based out of McCarran airport in Las Vegas. These folks used specialized equipment and aircraft to track down radioactive threats. I think this outfit later became known later as NEST, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team. 

I recall that they said that in spite of all of the talk about somebody smuggling an nuclear bomb into a major metropolitan area, the greatest threat was from a dirty bomb. I believe that was the first time I had heard the term – dirty bomb. 

We were told that a dirty bomb takes very little technical expertise to assemble, and there was low level radioactive waste all over the place – left pretty much unguarded.

We were told that it would not be difficult for a would be bomber to steal some low level radioactive medical waste, for example, and simply place it in a pile of TNT or other conventional explosive. The resulting explosion would aerosol low level radioactive material into the air over a wide area.

Such an event probably wouldn’t kill or injure many people, but because people are fearful and ignorant about the effects of radioactivity, it would cause a huge panic and if detonated in the center of a large city would probably cause the area to be abandoned for years and cause economic havoc on the area.

The British have put some thought into this possibility.

Meanwhile, 30 Years Later

In 2005, undercover agents used "social engineering" and false documents to bring radioactive material for a dirty bomb through Customs at the Canadian and Mexican borders.

The take home point here is that the technology at the border worked.  The radiation detectors went off and found the bad stuff, but the agents talked their way across the border using false paperwork. The very kind of paperwork that is created and processed by the companies that operate our airports and shipping ports. 

The outfit that controls the paperwork – the manifests, the bills of lading, and other documents involved in the movement of cargo are the key to moving contraband across borders.  As we see in this example, even if the whizzbang technology detects the stuff, with a good set of false documents, the stuff gets though.

Not much progress in those 30 years.


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