Original article from Lexington Institute, February 24, 2014, by Daniel Goure, Ph.D.
Early Warning Blog
Whether you are Al-Qaeda or a would-be Unibomber, one of the easiest ways to commit a terrorist act is to put a bomb in a package and ship it to your intended target. Big bombs and even nuclear weapons can be hidden inside standard 20-foot cargo containers that come into the United States by the thousands every day and travel our highways with ease. In 2011, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula almost succeeded in sneaking bombs disguised as toner cartridges for printers aboard a U.S. bound cargo flight.
Back in 2007, at the urging of then-Congressman, now-Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, Congress passed a law which, in part, mandated 100 percent screening of all U.S. bound cargoes for both nuclear material and explosives by December 31, 2011. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been successful in screening all baggage and cargo going aboard passenger flights, it still hasn’t met the requirement for 100 percent screening of all other cargo, whether arriving at our border by ship, plane, train or truck. Despite pressure to relax the 2007 standard, Congress has held steady on the requirement and DHS continues to strive to develop the capability for rapid, reliable and cheap cargo screening.
The solution to the challenge of cargo screening, not only with respect to nuclear materials but also high explosives, is now available. Decision Sciences International Corporation, a private company, developed the Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS) which offers to revolutionize the business of cargo screening. The MMPDS relies on naturally-occurring high energy neutron particles as its source and a simple detector array to measure the change in the path of the particles based on their interactions with the material inside the container. Dense materials such as uranium, plutonium or high explosives cause greater changes in the paths compared to less dense materials. The MMPDS can even detect shielded nuclear materials. Because the system is passive, meaning it doesn’t have to generate high energy particles such as x-rays, it is fast, relatively cheap, extremely accurate, safe and easy to operate.
For nearly two years, Decision Sciences has been running the MMPDS at Freeport in the Bahamas, demonstrating just how fast, easy, reliable and cheap their system is to operate. It takes very little time for a truck with a container to pass through the scanner. This means that the additional time required to move cargo in or out of a port or receiving station can be minimized and the pace of throughput maintained.
What Decision Sciences has demonstrated with respect to cargo screening for nuclear materials it now also can do for high explosives and even other contraband such as cigarettes and drugs. The same basic system, the MMPDS, can be “tuned” to use electrons instead of neutrons to detect less dense materials such as TNT or cocaine. A software change in the computer that interprets the movement of the particles through the scanned material is all that is needed. Even better, a smaller version of the MMPDS could be deployed to screen smaller vehicles such as delivery trucks or postal vans. This version could even be placed at the warehouses used by all large package delivery services allowing for screening of small boxes and even large envelopes. This would substantially reduce the risk from domestic terrorist bombers.
The requirement for 100 percent screening of cargo coming into the United States made sense back in 2007 and it makes just as much sense today. At one time, it appeared that the cost and complexity of cargo screening would delay implementation of the law, possibly forever. Decision Sciences has shown that it is possible to conduct cargo screening reliably, rapidly and cheaply. Now that the same system can also screen for high explosives and other illicit materials, there should be no reason other than the time it will take to deploy the MMPDS why this country cannot be made safer.