Searching For the Dirty Bomb

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In January of this year, the Bush Administration, alarmed by CIA warnings that Osama bin Laden could have some type of the nuclear device, quietly ordered NEST, the Nuclear Emergency Support Team, to begin periodic searches for a "dirty bomb" in Washington and other large U.S. cities. Administration officials say the NEST teams aren't dispatched to cities because of any specific threat received. Instead, in any given week, the FBI randomly selects several cities for visits by NEST, which consists of some 300 scientists and technicians from the Energy Department and nuclear weapons laboratories who are trained in finding and dismantling terrorist nuclear devices. The search procedure: A team of six or fewer NEST scientists covertly prowls areas in the cities that local authorities consider the most likely to have hidden contraband, like dock areas in coastal towns. Some NEST agents will drive in unmarked vans packed with sophisticated gamma and neutron detectors that sniff for radiation emissions. Others will travel on foot with the detectors concealed in briefcases, backpacks and even beer coolers.

NEST was formed by the Energy Department in 1975 after an extortionist offered not to detonate a nuclear weapon in Boston in exchange for $200,000. Since then, NEST has responded to more than 100 nuclear threats — all of which have turned out to be hoaxes. NEST now has powerful computers and secret facilities to track black-market nuclear bomb-making, as well as special planes and choppers that whisk search teams to any city in danger.

While concerns over the dirty bomb are not new, 9/11 brought them to the fore. Today, the CIA worries that bin Laden may have purchased a small Russian nuke or other nuclear material on the black market that he might be able to fashion into a "radiological dispersion device" that can be detonated by a conventional explosive. Bush administration national security aides aren't convinced that the Russian government knows exactly how many nuclear weapons it produced during the Cold War, much less whether any are now missing.

Just last month, NEST deployed its radiation detection equipment at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Explosive ordnance disposal experts with the Joint Special Operations Command are on call to fly in and assist the scientists in dismantling anything they find, but, so far, NEST has turned up nothing in the city searches. Administration officials admit that, just like putting sky marshals on airliners to foil potential hijackers, sending the NEST teams out is a shot in the dark. "But it's better than having them sitting at home doing nothing," says one.

So for the moment, NEST is hunting though a haystack for a needle that may or may not be there. At least they're not alone: the U.S. Customs Service is beefing up the radiation detectors it has deployed at ports of entry to sniff for dirty bombs. The job is overwhelming. More than 5 million shipping containers, 2 million rail cars and some 11 million trucks come into the U.S. every year. And still, there are other ways for nuclear materials to get into the U.S.

Congressman Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has been grilling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after reports last January that a 300-pound package containing 9,400 curies of radioactive iridium was shipped via FedEx from Paris to Louisiana where it was found to be leaking radiation. The NRC admitted that there are gaps in the screening of FedEx or UPS shipments that might have radioactive material. "In the same way the Sept. 11 hijackers used box cutters and airliners, they could use FedEx and UPS to send radioactive materials for bombs," Markey warns. "It should trigger multiple alarms."

Alarms, in fact, have been ringing all over Washington since Sept. 11. Measures that once might have been considered a waste of time and money — like deploying thousands of radiation detectors at border checkpoints and sending NEST teams out randomly to cities — are now meeting with approval. "Keep in mind we're now on a wartime footing," says a U.S. counter-terrorism official. And the unthinkable is becoming more familiar.