A threat that’s not going to go away anytime soon

This did not turn out like the Goiânia accident, but it’s still a scary story that illustrates that these kinds of problems are likely to persist over time. I’ve decided to quote rather extensively from the piece:

“Compared to a nuclear explosion, a dirty bomb would be a hiccup in terms of destructive force. The real problem would be panic. A light coating of radioactive dust raining down on Manhattan might cause only a minor increase in cancer rates, but it would definitely result in a major national freak-out. Set off at a major port, a dirty bomb would cause a chain reaction of precautionary closures and painstaking inspections that could bring the entire U.S. economy to a crawl within weeks. “The idea that dirty bombs could cause major destruction is complete bullshit. What they could do is cause billions and billions in economic damage,” says James Acton, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Dirty bombs are weapons of mass disruption.”

In the U.S., officials have significantly beefed up security at the nation’s ports since 9/11, and according to the Department of Homeland Security, 99 percent of incoming cargo is now scanned for radiation once it hits U.S. soil.” […]

“So after 10 years and more than $1 billion spent on scanners, radiation detectors, and beefed-up intelligence, most U.S. ports are still scanning containers onshore, after unloading. Unfortunately, the detectors are easily foiled. Lots of harmless things are slightly radioactive — kitty litter, ceramic tiles, even bananas. So most detectors are set to ignore low radiation levels. Basic shielding would be enough to mask all but the strongest sources. “The radiation portals that were deployed in the aftermath of 9/11 are essentially fine, except for three problems: They won’t find a nuclear bomb, they won’t find highly enriched uranium, and they won’t find a shielded dirty bomb,” says Stephen Flynn, a terrorism expert and president of the Center for National Policy. “Other than that, they’re great pieces of equipment.”” […]

“On the day Montagna scanned container 307703 — July 20, a week after it was offloaded — the two men were driving back from a meeting in the nearby town of Varazze. Calimero wasn’t surprised to see Montagna’s name on his cell phone — he sometimes called about bureaucratic stuff. But this was no routine matter.

Montagna quickly told them about his readings, and Calimero and Garbarino headed for the port, stopping at their office to pick up their own gear, well-used radiation detectors packed in padded aluminum cases. They arrived at Voltri less than an hour after Montagna’s phone call and found him and an official standing about 250 yards from container 307703, now moved to an unused area on the eastern edge of the port.

The first thing on everyone’s mind: Was there a nuclear bomb inside? Instruments in hand, Calimero and Garbarino walked toward the container, confirming Montagna’s readings. At 25 yards away, Montagna had measured radiation levels of 0.1 millisieverts per hour. (The maximum allowable exposure for radiation workers in the U.S. is 50 millisieverts per year.) Calimero and Garbarino didn’t want to get anywhere near the thing. The high readings were actually good news. The active ingredients of a nuclear device, plutonium or uranium, can be surprisingly difficult to detect. “Bombs don’t have such high levels,” Montagna says. “If it were a nuclear bomb, there would be much less radiation than was coming out of this thing.” […]

“After arriving and conducting their own analysis, fire department specialists decided to use a line of containers to create a quarantine zone. It wasn’t a great solution, but it bought some time. Over the next few days, Calimero and Garbarino managed to figure out exactly what they were dealing with. The hottest spot was about 2 feet off the ground, in the center of the container’s long left side. The team then brought in one of the most sensitive portable detectors on the market, an $80,000 Ortec HPGe Detective DX-100T. Inside the unit, a 1.65-pound chunk of germanium cooled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit releases electrons when hit with gamma radiation. As they decay, many radioisotopes emit gamma rays, and those occur at specific energy levels. Whatever was in the box was giving off gamma rays at 1,173 and 1,332 kiloelectron volts. It could be only one thing: cobalt-60 slowly alchemizing itself into nickel.

Cobalt-60 is usually sold as a solid piece of metal to be used in medical devices like teletherapy machines and blood irradiators. Other isotopes are better suited for dirty bombs. […] Nobody had any good explanations of why cobalt-60 would be in this container. And even if it wasn’t a bomb, what could they do with the box? It couldn’t stay in the port, but no one in the port would move it. The threat had been downgraded to a serious environmental hazard, but officials still couldn’t entirely rule out some kind of terrorist plot. “The radiation is so high it’s not possible for humans to go inside. We need to use robots,” Garbarino said last spring. “The final answer will come when they extract the source.” […]

Today, Voltri is the gateway to northern Italy’s industrial heartland. In addition to containers, 50,000 cars a year come through the port on their way to dealers across southern Europe. “Historically, Genoa has always based its life on the port,” says Ivan Drogo, head of Multicon, a local business association. “Shutting down the port would shut down Genoa.”

For six months after the container was discovered, officials made no public announcement about it, and the port’s business continued as usual. But rumor spread through the city. For a while, the only reaction was from port workers. Giacomo Santoro, whose FILT union represents most of the port’s longshoremen, claims Voltri management had his members move the container before adequately explaining the risks involved. And because the box spent a week on the dock between the time it was offloaded and when Montagna scanned it, dozens of people may have been unknowingly exposed to dangerous radiation. In protest, port workers staged a 24-hour strike in August 2010, three weeks after the container landed on the dock. For the next five days, the terminal’s union workers struck for two hours each shift.” […]

“Genoese officials were stuck. No shipping line in its right mind would transport container 307703 knowing only that it was radioactive but not what was inside. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates were willing to take it back. As a temporary measure, six months after the container was delivered the port built a three-sided “castle” of triple-stacked yellow containers half-filled with concrete around the unwanted box, which still sat at the terminal’s unused far end. Signs reading pericolo — radiazione ionizzante (“Danger — Ionizing Radiation”) were posted at regular intervals, reminding port workers to keep their distance.

After months of wrangling over who was responsible for the removal operation — priced at $700,000 — the port and the Italian ministry of the interior finally decided to split the bill. On July 18, 2011, just over a year after the box was unloaded in Genoa, 40 firefighters, a police bomb squad, representatives from the port authority, a team of robot operators, and Calimero and Garbarino descended on the Voltri terminal. Five huge green tents were pitched on the port’s blacktop to house computers and gear. Ten fire trucks and emergency vehicles were parked 100 yards behind the shield wall.

Using a remotely controlled excavator specially fitted for demolition work, firefighters drilled a foot-wide hole in the corrugated steel roof. Because there was still an outside chance that the container might hold a bomb, the fire department then tested for chemicals that would indicate explosives. When it didn’t find any, a waist-high tracked robot with three high-resolution cameras was lowered by crane onto the top of the box. Using the robot’s cameras, the bomb squad searched the inside of the container’s door for tripwires or detonators. All they could see were the radiators and copper wire that were officially supposed to be in the box — more than 22 tons of it.

Confident that container 307703 wasn’t going to explode, firefighters let the excavator go to work. “We ripped it open like a tin can,” says Alessandro Segatori, then the Genoese fire department’s second-in-command. That part was easy; finding the radioactive bit was not. A piece of metal weighing less than 6 ounces had to be plucked out of nearly 50,000 pounds of scrap.” […]

“Finally, on July 29, the object was sealed inside several inches of lead and placed into a green and yellow steel tank bolted to the flatbed of a truck. A police car escorted the truck across the docks, through the gates, and onto the highway.

Aside from a few scratches, there are no identifying marks on the cylinder to help investigators figure out what it is or where it came from. The encapsulated chunk of cobalt will make its way north to Leipzig, Germany, where a specialized firm will search it for a serial number and eventually melt it down and recycle it. Judging by its size and shape, the object was probably part of a medical device or a machine used to sterilize food. Disposing of such material is expensive; Italian officials won’t speculate on how it got conveniently lost in a Saudi scrap yard. No one knows how the cobalt got into the container or how the container got into the system.”

November 6, 2011 - Posted by | nuclear proliferation

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