January 10, 2003
How To Detect Terrorist Weapons Of Mass Destruction?

Aracor has developed a system that uses X-rays to look for hidden nuclear materials.

The system they developed produces high-energy X-rays that can penetrate cargo containers and common shielding materials. If the X-rays hit uranium or plutonium they induce fission reactions, splitting their nuclei into smaller fragments. In the process, neutrons are emitted that can pass through shielding materials and be picked up by a neutron detector outside.

If this system becomes deployed at every point of entry into the United States and every single piece of cargo or vehicle is examined with it it still won't prevent nuclear bombs from being smuggled into the United States.

SUNNYVALE, CA – October 2002 – Advanced Research and Applications Corporation (ARACOR), a leading manufacturer of x-ray imaging systems, announces that it has signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement ("CRADA") to develop and deploy technology that can detect special nuclear materials and nuclear weapons concealed within sea cargo containers or trucks. Under this CRADA, ARACOR will work with the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory to optimize and deploy a new nuclear materials detection system.

"Presently, Customs inspectors are equipped with small radiation sensors ("radiation pagers") to detect the presence of special nuclear materials and radioactive isotopes. These sensors provide the first layer of defense against the nuclear materials threat," explained ARACOR’s President, Dr. R. A. Armistead. "However, to further enhance Custom’s capabilities for the interdiction of nuclear materials illicitly entering the U.S., we are using an active detection approach involving photoneutron and photofission reactions that can only be produced in fissile materials. If this new active nuclear detection technology is deployed on our Eagle® inspection system, it will be possible to automatically detect nuclear materials while routine x-ray inspections of the cargo are being conducted," Armistead added.

The Eagle is a self-contained mobile x-ray inspection system designed for inspecting cargo containers, vehicles and rail cars. This high-performance system provides a cargo penetration capability equivalent to 300 mm of steel and can form an image of a cargo container or truck in less than a minute.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: Detection systems have to succeed before the weapon reaches a high population density area. A ship has to come into a harbor and to be off-loaded in order for its cargo to be examined. Well, Ahmed the A-bomb Attacker is just going to install a remote control device or a GPS detected that will cause the nuclear bomb in some ship's cargo to go off once the ship reaches the harbor of some major US port city. That would allow them to blow up San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, Boston, New Orleans and many other US cities. So I do not see how this detection system helps all that much.

A more clever attacker could develop a large long-range torpedo that could carry a nuclear bomb and then release it from a ship many miles off-shore with a guidance system that would deliver the bomb into a harbor before detonating. A similar approach would be to use a small surface boat that had an automatic guidance system that would keep it moving toward a port. The boat could even be made up to have a dummy at the helm so that the boat would appear to have a pilot. The boat could even use a camera feeding a video signal to a remote that had electronic means of controlling the boat.

It is extremely difficult to prevent a nuclear attack by a small group once that group gets a workable nuclear weapon. If a group has enough money and brains they can figure out any number of ways to delivering the weapon with a high probability of success.

Looking at likely technological trends for the next 30 or 40 years its hard to see how advances defensive systems can keep pace with the development of new ways to manufacture and deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology and other fields will make it feasible for people with less resources and skills to develop WMD. As a result,as technology advances smaller and smaller groups will be able to develop WMD. A steadily increasing number of people will be able to develop WMD. What must we to do to prevent terrorist attacks that kill tens or hundreds of millions?

The only detection system that would have a chance of stopping terrorist WMD weapons before they reach their targets would have to be absolutely monumental in scope. Ships would need to dock in automated ports in extremely low population density areas. Then their cargo could be unloaded and examined to check for WMD. All originating ports would need weapons detection systems and extensive video and other sensor systems to prevent WMD from being placed on ships headed outbound. All ships would need extensive monitoring systems on-board to prevent the addition of WMD while in transit. Major coastal population areas would require embedded passive sensor systems offshore and automated underwater, surface, airborne mobile platforms that did constant patrols looking for approaching ships and underwater craft.

Detection of WMD on approaching aircraft, ships, boats, and underwater craft is not an adequate method of defense. Another approach (and keep in mind I'm not advocating any approach; just trying to illustrate the scope of the effort required to defend against easily buildable WMD) would be to prevent WMD development by extensively monitoring the actions of every person on the planet. Once artificial intelligence is achieved this might be possible to do. Stationary and mobile monitoring of the scope required would generate so much sensor data that it could only be done if artificially intelligent computers were doing the work.

There's an even more radical approach possible for defense against WMD development by increasing numbers of governments and non-governmental organisations: genetically engineer the personalities of some or all of the human race to make them less dangerous. People could be made to be less hostile and angry or perhaps to be more empathetic and more kind and benevolent. That may well turn out to be the only approach that will work well enough to prevent catastrophic terrorism.

Technology is a way to do things. The tools of technology can be applied for good or ill. Each person must decide what to use technologies for. As technologies become more advanced the number of things that each person will be able to do will steadily increase. The problem is that technologies can more easily destroy than they can protect. Therefore, as technologies become more advanced the risk that even a very small number of hostile peope pose eventually becomes enormous. This is the biggest political problem that the human race faces in the 21st century.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 January 10 04:18 PM  Dangers Tech General

Bob said at January 11, 2003 12:28 PM:

As strange as this may sound, I think your article understates the difficulty in keeping nuclear weapons out of the US.

I have a friend, an avid sailer, who has crewed yachts whose owners wanted them sailed from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean in November--after the hurricane season--and sailed back again in the spring. Apparently, it's a rather common request. While the yachts probably start in France or Italy, it would be easy enough to meet another vessel originating in Africa--or even to put ashore in Africa--anywhere along the northern or eastern coasts all the way down to the tropics.

From what my friend tells me, sailing vessels stick close to Africa until they pick up the trade winds for the Atlantic crossing. Even if yacht owners are careful in crewing their yachts, an act of piracy could sieze an unremarkable vessel with a known destination in the Americas.

Once the fissile material is in the Caribbean, where it frankly need never come ashore with the yacht, consider how effective the US is at keeping drugs from hitting the shores of Florida.

Another rather obvious alternative would involve loading the nuclear material onto a factory ship on its way to the international waters of the Grand Banks. Several old-world countries have fleets that fish the Grand Banks. From the factory ship, terrorists could transfer it to a Canadian or American trawler or even to a pleasure craft. (It might seem that the collapse of the cod stocks is in fact a serendipitous defense of our shores.)

Fishing vessels from several countries, probably including one or both of the Koreas, similarly mix it up while pursuing salmon in the Pacific.

Buying an entire fishing fleet would be well within the means of an organization like Al Quaeda.

jb said at January 13, 2003 10:19 AM:

I agree with both Randall and Bob, and I suspect that where this ends up is not going to be pretty.

a) virtually any nation state of any size will have at least a few disgruntled citizens/subjects/immigrants who think that they're getting a "raw deal" and will have the ability to acquire WMD.

So I suspect that this may mean the end of the nation state.

b) society will be a lot more polite and cooperative - for fear of upsetting someone with WMD who will be willing to wipe you off the planet.

c) threats will be dealt with harshly and quickly - a corollary to b - these smaller groups will deal with dangerous behavior swiftly and surely, because they don't dare let anyone blackmail them.

d) Free enterprise may become impossible - as much as I love and prefer capitalism to other systems, it ensures disparity of result (because of disparity in levels of competence, effort and luck), and causes significant resentment, which in the world of ubiquitous WMD, invites reprisal.

e) Socialism will be ascendant - the one virtue of Socialism is, in my mind, its ability to make the common folk feel like they're pretty well off, mostly by soaking the rich. It engenders less resentment than Capitalism.

f) Extreme Interdependece - every one of these tiny societies will be obliged to (and seek to) become invaluable to the societies near them, through economic and interpersonal engagements. This will be necessary to keep minor disputes from flaring into mushroom clouds.

g) Suicide Raconteurs will spring up for a while - they'll sneak into these small groups, say something insane or threatening, and get the group blown up by nervous neighbors. This will be countered by major controls over outgoing communications channels, and lots of authority verification.

Ugh.. it makes me depressed just to think about it.

Randall Parker said at January 13, 2003 12:46 PM:

jb, I wish I shared your optimism that socialism will help reduce the resentment. Socialism may just increase the resentment toward governments because of all the control they would have.

I agree about the threat it poses to the nation-state. It especially poses a threat to large cities. Large cities are more tempting targets for nuclear terrorism.

Another aspect of this may be a great restriction on movement of people. By breaking the population of the world up into separate areas with little movement between the areas one can reduce the ease with which bioweapon infections can be spread.

I do not see a solution to this problem. Its one of my biggest worries about the future. I think that an aggressive strategy of preemption can delay the problem for a decade or two. Well, I'll take those decades. But I do not see sufficient political will in the US (let alone in the rest of the Western nations) to pursue a sufficiently aggressive strategy of preemption. North Korea already threatens to become the Nuclear KMart to anyone who is angry and has the money to pay.

Another big worry is personality engineering that results in psychopathic and otherwise incompatible personality types. But personality engineering can cut both ways.

jb said at January 14, 2003 10:07 AM:

I could very well be wrong about socialism, but it seems from my distanced view that the people who live there generally think lots of government control is better. They certainly seem smug about the more "sophisticated" government that they have vis-a-vis the U.S.

I am not optimistic about personality engineering. One psychopath can produce a huge amount of destruction. To avoid it, essentially everyone would have to be "mellow". And there are genetic advantages to aggressiveness that make it unlikely that everyone would willingly become (or allow their children to become) mellow.

In thinking about it, secrecy might be one potentially effective mechanism for survival - if no one knows where you are, no one can blow you up. Certainly not a guaranteed defense mechanism, and with its share of problems, but it is better than nothing.

Bob said at January 14, 2003 8:55 PM:

jb, I've been sitting here thinking about this for a while, and for the life of me, I cannot think of a single instance where disparity of wealth, alone, led to significant resentment. In all cases I can think of, some other dimension was the major contributor to resentment: race, religion, language etc.

Autoritarianism has certainly led to popular uprising, but I don't think capitalism has.

Those who resent us now are not impoverished and resent plenty of socialist societies too.

john-boy said at March 11, 2003 10:06 PM:

One thing for sure - you idiots dont have the intelligence to threaten anyone, let alone build a WMD

Fred Wolke said at December 1, 2003 1:01 PM:

Capitalism, socialism, doesn't matter.

Cultural resentment doesn't matter.

The question on my mind is whether the use of weapons of mass destruction will destroy enough of our society to preclude the creation of weapons of global destruction.

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