Imagine a boat pulling up to the Seattle waterfront and lighting off a radioactive “dirty bomb” – or worse, an actual nuclear weapon.
That’s the nightmare scenario behind a new effort to scan small boats, including recreational vessels, for radioactive and nuclear materials that could be used in terrorist attacks.
Puget Sound is at the forefront of a federal effort to deploy radiological detection equipment to law enforcement agencies that patrol marine areas. Last week, more than 300 people from 20-plus agencies participated in the first full-scale test of that equipment during a simulated exercise in three locations—Admiralty Inlet, Bellingham Bay and north Skagit Bay.
During Wednesday’s exercise, agents used a boat-mounted device and hand-held radiation detectors to scan boats in the three locations, some of which had been planted with materials that would trigger the sensors.
When potentially dangerous materials were detected, the agents used detectors known as radiation isotope identification devices. About the size of a toaster, the devices identified what type of material was present and where in the boat it was located. The information was then sent to a government lab in Washington, D.C. for confirmation.
The exercise is part of the West Coast Maritime pilot program, a three-year initiative launched by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office in 2007 to provide radiation detection capabilities to state and local authorities in Puget Sound and the San Diego area.
Federal agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection have been using the technology for several years; the pilot program aims to bolster those efforts by providing radiation detection equipment to other agencies that patrol marine areas.
“This is a great program because it gets this technology to the other law enforcement agencies out on Puget Sound,” said Mike Milne, public affairs officer for Customs and Border Protection’s Seattle office. “It just makes us all safer.”
With its Navy bases, commercial ports, 125 miles of open maritime border and the nation’s largest ferry system, Puget Sound was an obvious choice for the pilot. And with an increase in cross-border marine traffic expected during the 2010 Winter Olympics, being held in Vancouver, B.C. in February, protecting the region from terrorists is a high priority.
That poses a particular challenge for marine enforcement agencies. Boats crossing the U.S.-Canada border into Puget Sound are required to check in at one of five points of entry, but check-ins are often conducted via telephone and vessels can slip through undetected. And while the Maritime Security Act of 2002 requires large vessels to notify authorities in advance of their ship’s arrival and contents when entering the United States, the regulations don’t apply to boats weighing less than 300 gross tons.
That means sizeable boats with holds capable of stowing large amounts of illegal materials could enter the U.S. almost unregulated.
“If you decide not to (check in at a point of entry), who is going to know and how are they going to find you?” said Bill Peterson of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who is managing the Puget Sound pilot.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office invested $3.5 million to provide radioactive detection equipment and training to state, local and tribal agencies around Puget Sound. The equipment has been distributed to agencies ranging from local police departments to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Our objective is to safely identify and interdict radiological materials as far away as possible from populated areas and critical facilities,” Coast Guard Captain Dave Crowley said in a statement. “And while this improves the region’s security, it’s essential our efforts cause minimal impact to routine commercial and recreational boating activities.”
Though the equipment has been in use among those agencies since February, last week’s exercise marked the first time it was tested in real-world conditions. Peterson deemed the initiative successful.
“The equipment worked very well and we detected the threat sources,” he said. “I think it was very much a success.”
The hand-held scanners are now integrated into the various agencies’ regular patrols. Worn like pagers, the devices are passive and issue an alert only when detecting a source of radiation. They can pick up radiation only within about 10 to 12 feet, making them useful when agents are patrolling docks or boarding boats on the water for checks.
Additionally, a patrol boat belonging to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department has been equipped with a system that can detect radiation from up to about 30 feet away.
Though radioactive materials can be used to make weapons such as dirty bombs, they are also used for industrial or medical purposes, including treatments for cancer and cardiovascular disease.
That can prompt the devices to go off in innocent situations. Peterson mentions a Washington Fish and Wildlife officer who stopped at the grocery store on his way home from work. As he walked by a parked car on his way into the store, his hand-held device sounded an alert. The officer waited by the car until the owner returned.
After a short conversation, the officer discovered that the owner’s cat was in the car in a carrier. They were on their way back from the vet, where the cat had underwent a procedure using radioactive material.
“The officer hasn’t had any detections on the water yet, but he has detected a radioactive cat,” Peterson said, chuckling.
Milne said such incidents are common and that people are typically understanding. “We’re trying to keep people safe,” he said. “We ask the public to be cooperative with us, and hopefully they understand the importance of the mission.”