There are two ways that nuclear terrorism could find its way into the United States. Weapons or materials such as enriched uranium or plutonium could be smuggled over the border. Alternatively, radioactive materials in the United States could be used to fashion a weapon. There are many sources of radioactive material in the United States, such as medical devices, and a good number are discarded or have been stolen or otherwise disappeared.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, focus was on the threat of international terrorism. In the mid-1990s, following Timothy McVeigh's attack on the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building, concern shifted to include domestic terrorist threats. That concern has been overshadowed by the renewed interest in international threats, since the 9/11 attacks. In the last several years, the United States has largely focused on border protection, rather than domestic bomb production.
The United States has established a number of measures designed to protect targets against nuclear terrorism.
Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST)
In 1974, President Ford established the Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), to provide technical support to the FBI in investigating nuclear and radiological terrorism threats. The group, composed of volunteer nuclear scientists working at national laboratories, has operated in nearly complete secrecy since its inception. During most of its history, NEST has responded to leads about possible nuclear devices by sending out small, unidentified teams to investigate. No nuclear weapon planted by terrorists has ever been uncovered in the United States.
In 2005, a US News and World Report article charged that NEST teams were monitoring "ratdiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the Washington D.C. area, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, plus similar sites in at least five other cities" (Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York and Seattle). The article raised concerns that some of the locations monitored required warrants for surveillance.
Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response
The safety of nuclear facilities and materials traditionally been addressed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The Commission is headed by five Presidential nominees. In April, 2002, the NRC created the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response (NSIR), and in 2004, they created the Emergency Preparedness Project Office (EPPO).
The NSIR Office develops policies, procedures and programs related to nuclear facility security, and responding to possible mishaps at them. NSIR liaises between the NRC, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), law enforcement, the intelligence community, the Department of Energy (DOE).
The U.S. and International Protocols
2005 International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism
On April 13, 2005, the United Nations adopted Resolution 59/290, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The convention demands that state signatories criminalize "the unlawful and intentional possession, use, or threatened or attempted use of nuclear material or devices with intent to kill, injure, or cause substantial damage to property or the environment. The Convention is inteded to provide a legal basis for international cooperation in the investigation, prosecution, and extradition of persons who commit terrorist acts involving radioactive material or nuclear devices."
Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA)
In October, 2005, the U.S. supported the adoption of two new treaties designed in part to prohibit international ship transport of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), such as nuclear weapons, or materials that could be used in WMDs. The treaties were intended to lay legal ground for the prosecution of commercial ships found in non-compliance.
Both protocols added to the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation. The second treaty, with similar intentions, is called the Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf.
Post 9/11 Nuclear Terrorism Technologies to Protect Borders
Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has focused on preventing radioactive materials from crossing American borders, primarily by seeking to develop technology that will identify radioactive material. The DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) contracts much of this development. The office's other goals include enhancing the ability to detect nuclear materials and coordinating responses across agencies.
At their best, anti-terrorism technologies not only to keep ports and borders safe, but also keep them working efficiently. Developers want technologies that will help keep them from having to hand inspect every piece of cargo, or closing down ports or other facilities when suspicious cargo appears.
Radiation scanners are already in place at California's Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor complex.
According to the February 9, 2007 New York Times two new technologies designed to detect radioactive material will be tested in New York City in 2007. These include a "network of radiation alarms at some bridges, tunnels, roadways and waterways," as well as radioactive detection machines at the Staten Islan port. These are "designed to screen cargo and automatically distinguish between naturally occurring radiation and critical bomb-building ingredients."
Some port operators are also experimenting with the use of mobile radiation scanners.