Radiation Monitors Cannot Reliably Detect Highly Enriched Uranium at U.S. Ports and Border Crossings

America Remains Vulnerable to Terrorist Nuclear Smuggling Despite Spending Billions

WASHINGTON (March 25, 2008) --Nuclear security equipment at U.S. borders and ports is failing to reliably detect highly enriched uranium entering the country, meaning Americans are spending billions for machines that don’t reliably detect the most dangerous nuclear material, making it possible for terrorists to smuggle in the material needed to build a nuclear bomb in the United States, according to an article published today in the April issue of Scientific American entitled: “Detecting Nuclear Smuggling.” (pages 98-104).
The authors, both from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are:  Thomas B. Cochran, Ph.D., senior scientist and Wade Green Chair for Nuclear Policy; and Matthew G. McKinzie, Ph.D., senior scientist in the nuclear program. In conjunction with the publication of the article, NRDC has filed a petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to establish a date after which it would stop licensing or authorizing the export of highly enriched uranium for civil purposes.
The principal findings in the article are:
  • As demonstrated both in two field experiments and using computer calculations, portal radiation detectors now used at U.S. border crossings and ports of entry cannot reliably detect significant quantities of highly-enriched uranium;
  • The design and construction of a simple nuclear fission bomb with highly enriched uranium is shockingly simple;
  • Even advanced versions of passive radiation portal monitor technology now being considered offer no increase in the ability of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to have high confidence in detecting hidden highly enriched uranium, despite the enormous investment the United States is poised to make in them;
  • Given that the only significant impediment to terrorist use of a crude atom bomb made with highly enriched uranium is obtaining the material, the authors urge the federal government to forge a larger, more effective strategic plan centered on eliminating, consolidating and securing now widespread and vulnerable sources of highly enriched uranium.
Twice since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, NRDC has assisted an ABC News investigative journalist unit led by reporter Brian Ross to ship secretly a soda can-sized cylinder of depleted uranium weighing 15 pounds from foreign ports into the U.S., mimicking the routes a terrorist might use to smuggle highly enriched uranium. NRDC’s slug of depleted uranium passed undetected through the network of radiation portal monitors now operating at U.S. border crossings and ports of entry. Had the slug been lightly shielded highly enriched uranium, it would have presented an even fainter signal to the radiation portal monitors, according to the authors’ calculations. NRDC’s subsequent research on simple nuclear fission bombs showed that the risks from terrorist acquisition of highly enriched uranium are even higher than even the authors had first thought.
Based on these findings, NRDC scientists and policy experts are recommending that the federal government shift its priorities to focus foremost on the elimination of highly enriched uranium sources worldwide.  In this regard, NRDC filed today a petition for rulemaking with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requesting that NRC establish a date after which it would no longer license the civil use of highly enriched uranium or authorize its export.
Click here to read the article in Scientific American, go to NRDC’s petition to the NRC (pdf), or read more about the issue and ABC News’ smuggling experiments in 2002 and 2003.