To: "Letters Editor" <email@example.com>
From: "Russell D. Hoffman" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: Despite New Tools, Detecting Nuclear Material Is Doubtful
To: "Letters Editor" <email@example.com>
From: Russell D. Hoffman, Concerned Citizen, Carlsbad, CA
Date: March 18th, 2002
To The Editor,
In the article shown below, "earth's natural radiation" is described as one of the problems in detection of terrorist bombs -- radioactive background noise.
The background radiation level has been climbing steadily since the start of the nuclear age, and it continues to climb, and it will continue to climb for many centuries, even if we completely stopped making new radioactive waste today. Man-made radiation now accounts for between 1/3 and 2/3s of the average background dose (depending on where you live), and in 100 years it may well be 10 times that amount, just from accidents which have already happened, but haven't yet spread their waste globally -- but will, over time. Also, from improperly isolated radioactive waste which is already seeping into rivers, lakes, groundwater, and our oceans.
Each release increases the background radiation level, which causes cancer in some people, and makes detection of terrorist nuclear devices harder.
This newly-realized problem of detection is yet one more solid argument against continued reliance on nuclear solutions to problems which could be solved with non-nuclear technologies. Each and every use of a nuclear solution to a technological problem in society has an inevitable risk of releasing more radioactive materials into the environment. For example, food irradiation isotopes might be stolen, or burned in a building fire. Similarly, radioactive materials used in medicine, after being run through the patient's body, then get into the biosphere, and sometimes into the water supply. Worse, another Chernobyl-style release of radioactive waste into the biosphere is inevitable if we don't shut down the world's nuclear reactors. We almost lost Besse-Davis last week. Who's next?
How long will it take America to wake up and stop the nuclear nightmare? After the "background" radiation level gets so high we are ALL dying?
Radiation causes cancer, leukemia, birth defects, and a long list of other ailments. There is no question that non-nuclear solutions are available to replace virtually all things we currently use nuclear solutions for -- especially energy. It's high time for America to implement clean solutions, because we can no longer pretend we don't know about the deaths and pain the nuclear solution is causing.
P. O. Box 1936
Carlsbad, CA 92018
At 07:03 AM 3/18/02 , you wrote:
March 18, 2002
Despite New Tools, Detecting Nuclear Material Is Doubtful
By JAMES GLANZ
Since Sept. 11, the federal government has sharply increased support for
research into advanced sensors that could detect nuclear weapons or
so-called dirty bombs if they fall into the hands of terrorists in the
Last week, several national laboratories unveiled an ultrasensitive
hand-held radiation detector weighing 10 pounds that could join bomb-
sniffing dogs as an essential tool for emergency response teams. But
nuclear terrorism experts say that even the latest detection technologies
— and others that are the focus of research — face forbidding odds.
Ultimately, the experts said, all detectors are likely to meet a brick
wall imposed by the laws of physics.
Without intelligence information to narrow the search, "needle in a
haystack" is far too mild a phrase, said Dr. Steven Fetter, a physicist
and security expert who is a professor of public policy at the University
of Maryland. "If you tell me there's a warhead in New York, it's just
hopeless," Dr. Fetter said. "You just hope you never get to the point
where you have to track down one of these in a city."
The question that the post-Sept. 11 world has put to security officials is
in a sense simple: If terrorists with nuclear material were loose in the
United States, how would anyone know, and how could such weapons be hunted
down if the nation knew they were out there, somewhere?
The question is not hypothetical. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have made
recent efforts to obtain nuclear materials, and a senior administration
official said in an interview that the government had been forced to
deploy its Nuclear Emergency Search Team in the months since the World
Trade Center attacks. The official would not elaborate, saying only that
the NEST deployments had taken place in the United States.
To anyone without a background in nuclear physics, the answers may be
unexpected and more than a little disconcerting. The question boils down
to whether the radiation emitted from an illicit weapon would announce its
presence to state-of-the- art detectors, allowing the material to be found
and a horrific act stopped. Several facts of physics make such a search
overwhelming at best.
The first problem may be obvious. A sophisticated terrorist could shield a
bomb in a radiation-blocking material like lead. On the positive side, the
shield might have to be so bulky that a terrorist could not move quickly
without being noticed.
But some of the most dangerous nuclear materials, those that could be used
in an atomic bomb, are not very radioactive, giving searchers little to go
on. Moreover, earth's natural radiation can easily mask a distant
radiation source's signal.
Scientists seem to agree that arrays of permanent nuclear detectors should
be deployed in heavily populated areas and politically and symbolically
important buildings. But they add that the nation also has to promote
tight controls on nuclear materials, some of which have common industrial
and medicinal uses.
"We plainly need to take a new look at the procedures by which people
obtain these high levels of radioactive material," said Dr. Henry Kelly,
president of the Federation of American Scientists, who spoke at a Senate
hearing this month. "The risks are quite high."
The threats from radioactive materials come in two forms. One, the dirty
bomb, would use a conventional explosive to disperse a radioactive
material to sow terror and cause health problems, including cancer. Dirty
bombs would rely on substances like radioactive cesium, cobalt, iridium
and strontium that are used to kill pathogens in food processing plants,
as probes to test welds and pipelines and in many medical treatments.
All those materials are intense emitters of gamma rays, a kind of
high-energy version of X-rays. While gamma rays are what make the
materials useful for medicine and industry, extremely high doses can also
increase the cancer risk in people.
The hand-held Cryo3 detector, based on the radiation-sensitive element
germanium, was developed to find gamma ray "fingerprints" of such
materials in a collaboration between three Energy Department national
laboratories: Lawrence Berkeley, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.
Germanium is not only highly sensitive to gamma rays; it also determines
their precise energies. Since each type of radioactive material emits
different gamma ray energies, "you can make a much more informed decision
about what your next step might be," said Michael O'Connell, a program
leader in the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Germanium detectors are generally bulky, laboratory-scale devices, Mr.
O'Connell said. Because of several technical advances, including a
miniaturized cooling engine for the germanium, the new system could be
used by urban bomb squads as well as NEST groups, he said.
Since Sept. 11, the security administration's annual budget for nuclear
sensor development has been doubled, to $20 million. A spokeswoman
estimated that federal laboratories are spending another $14 million to
$18 million on the problem.
Much deadlier, and harder to obtain, would be nuclear bombs based on
uranium or plutonium. Experts' worst nightmare is that a small nuclear
weapon from the former Soviet arsenal would be smuggled into the United
These elements are relatively feeble emitters of gamma rays, as Dr.
Richard A. Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California
at Berkeley, points out. The trick in detecting them is to look for
neutrons, subatomic particles with no electrical charge. Neutrons are
difficult to detect.
The government is working on improved and more mobile neutron detectors,
Mr. O'Connell said.
Even before the new advances, the nation was not without a capacity to
respond quickly to potential nuclear threats. The NEST squads are
outfitted with equipment like belt-clip detectors the size of pagers and
more powerful sensors in vehicles.
How likely is it that a team could detect a dirty bomb or small nuclear
weapon in a van taking Interstate 95 to Washington? Dr. Frank N. von
Hippel, a physicist who teaches science policy at Princeton University,
said Russia and the United States ran a joint exercise in 1989 that found
that under ideal conditions warheads could be detected from more than 200
feet away. "They showed that U.S. and Soviet warheads were quite
detectable," Dr. von Hippel said. "That might not necessarily be true for
a terrorist warhead."
But given the uncertainty surrounding the unthinkable prospect of a chase
for loose nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, most authorities agree that the
sole airtight solution is to control the materials at their source.
"The moral of the story is you lock up nuclear materials as well as you
can lock them up," said Dr. Fetter, of the University of Maryland. "Once
you let them get out, the problem is a thousand times harder."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company