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Risk of Nuclear Materials Being Smuggled Through Ports Should Be Taken Seriously, Say Experts

Risk of Nuclear Materials Being Smuggled Through Ports Should Be Taken Seriously, Say Experts

Original article published by Security Management (

By Holly Gilbert

May 29, 2013

Steve Flynn

Dr. Stephen E. Flynn speaks at the American Security Project panel, “Nuclear Terrorism: What’s at Stake?”

The threat of harmful nuclear material entering the United States through the nation’s ports is a very real one, but international cooperation and technological solutions can help better secure our waterways against that threat. That was the subject of a panel discussion titled “Nuclear Terrorism: What’s at Stake?” [1] hosted by the American Security Project in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.

Dr. Stephen Flynn, a professor at Northeastern University and former president of the Center for National Policy, said that smuggling through shipping containers is already happening on a daily basis, which demonstrates the possibility of a nuclear device, planted by terrorists, to go undetected. “You name the contraband, and it is [already] flowing through the system, whether it’s knockoff products on the low end, to the movement of large sums of cash, to narcotics, to every form of weapons short of nuclear weapons, in terms of what we’ve found there,” he said. “The bottom line is the system remains highly vulnerable for folks to move things because it’s essentially an honor system, and it’s an honor system of enormous size.”

The enormity of that so-called “honor system” has only grown over the years. In 2003, the world’s ports moved 300 million TDU’s, the metric unit used for weighing containerized cargo. In 2006, 400 million TDU’s were moved; last year, that number was 580 million TDU’s.

Because of the large number of containers that go through ports, the system is set up to allow companies to earn trusted status and have their containers go through on an expedited basis. Flynn said he was convinced that if and when nuclear material enters the U.S. through a port, “it will come through a trusted shipper….” because those containers go through less scrutiny.

Some experts argue that searching every single container that comes into U.S. ports is not feasible. That’s why the approach has been risk-based. But not everyone agrees.

While 742 ports around the world sent material to the United States last year, 99.5 percent of those shipments came from just 120 ports.

“It’s frequently cited that it’s too hard to keep track of all the ports,” said Dr. Stanton D. Sloane, president and CEO of the Decision Sciences International Corporation, “but if you really dig into the numbers, that’s really not the case.” Sloane pointed to research and development as a viable way to find a one-size-fits-all solution for those ports sending the majority of materials to the States. “The answer is a technological answer,” he noted. “We need to develop new technologies and field them quickly…. We have to get to a regime that scans everything. We have to find these bad devices, and we have to do this where the bad guys are going to be clever and shield it from existing technologies.”

Because of the global nature of shipping, international cooperation is absolutely crucial to preventing the threat of a nuclear weapon being smuggled through U.S. ports, said David Waller, former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and former assistant secretary of Energy for International Affairs. “Nuclear material arriving at a U.S. port in a container, in all likelihood, has arrived from elsewhere, and [was] shipped undetected from elsewhere. So that makes it very clear international cooperation is very important in securing our ports.” But, he noted, the government has not attempted to do it alone.

Panel members agreed that the nuclear threat was real. Rear admiral (retired) Jay Cohen, former Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Science and Technology of the Department of Homeland Security expressed the views of many by stating: “It’s only a question of where, when, and to what magnitude.”

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