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Port security, worldwide, has been compromised by a forseeable, and avoidable, mistake.
That humans make mistakes is obvious. Sometimes those mistakes carry little, if any consequences. Sometimes errors can be overwhelming. If there is one current theme in our efforts to achieve nuclear security, it is that we are “mistake prone.” What comes of these blunders…only time will tell.
Take the example of nuclear material and bomb detectors intended for use at world-wide cargo ports.
Clearly it is wise to develop technology for detecting nuclear devices which can be secreted into the country in shipping containers. It is a colossal mistake, however, to run out of a key ingredient, a raw material essential to the development of such technology, because someone forgot to make sure there was enough helium-3 to make functional the 1,300 to 1,400 machines planned to spot uranium or plutonium.
According to the New York Times on November 23, helium-3 is derived from decayed tritium, which comes from hydrogen bombs. The last time we made tritium was in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Since then, the available supply of helium-3, which detects neutrons which are given off by plutonium bombs, has diminished. While there are substitutes for the scarce ingredient, none are reported to be as effective or as discriminatory when discerning between nuclear weapons and ordinary things cargo like kitty litter and bananas.
According to the Times report, “The helium-3 problem is another symptom of the decline of nuclear technology.” Why the Department of Homeland Security did not seem to know it could not deploy all of the detection machines because of a limited amount of helium-3 is a mystery. It signals a serious mistake in planning. According to Representative Brad Miller (D-North Carolina), “I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable.”
The problem of bombs and nuclear components being ushered in with cargo containers is not new or limited to the U.S. It is a real and present danger across the globe. (See video).
The helium problem is particularly troubling. The miscalculation about how much was available could be catastrophic if a smuggled weapon or nuclear material is actually used because of the lack of detection equipment at American and foreign shipping ports. While there are other technologies to try to prevent a shipping container disaster, this was to be one of the most promising.
Such nuclear negligence takes other forms.
Back in 1998 and again in 2000, the United States and Russia agreed to open up a joint early warning center on formerly Soviet soil to detect and analyze missile launches in an effort to avoid accidental warfare. Delayed by 11 years, the center has still not opened. However, since the agreement was made, nuclear brinksmanship has morphed into a state of complexity, and continues to do so. There are still old warheads for which there is no accounting, and more terrorist organizations and rouge governments seek nuclear capability. The Times reported on November 14 that legal issues (like who is responsible for the construction of the center) have held up opening the facility.
Amazing. We are living in the time of North Korean nuclear weapons, Iranian development of nuclear technology and an unstable Pakistani warhead arsenal. Even Myanmar is suspected of wanting “the bomb.” Al Qaeda seeks the bomb. It is ironic that Russians and Americans can cooperate with the complex International Space Station, but jointly we can’t open a building which might help prevent World War III.
The importance of such an early warning center is crystalized by recalling recent history. According to the International Relations Center in October, 2001, “U.S. nuclear attack warning systems generated more than 1,150 serious false alarms between 1977 and 1984.” On January 25, 1995, the Russians thought an American missile was headed their way. In the minutes before a retaliation launch was being contemplated, the path of the missile was determined to be non-hostile. Even though told of the launch (designed to probe the Northern Lights), someone forgot to tell Russian rocket commanders. We came close…very close, to the end…because of nuclear negligence.
Yes. We are being too lax…too trusting that things will not go wrong. What’s most troubling is the fact that both of these examples of malfeasance fit into the “completely avoidable” category. They are examples of how accidents and incidents are allowed happen, and by then, of course, it is too late. We cannot rely on good luck to avoid nuclear devastation. Quality control in our efforts to avoid nuclear winter needs to be job one.
The legal definition of negligence is clear. It is “the failure to use reasonable care.” U.S. Courts explain “Reasonable care is that degree of care which a reasonably careful person would use under like circumstances. Negligence may consist either in doing something that a reasonably careful person would not do under like circumstances or in failing to do something that a reasonably careful person would do under like circumstances.” Applying these definitions, the helium-3 and early warning center examples shout NEGLIGENCE.
No reasonably careful individual would plan for and develop vital equipment to safeguard our ports that cannot ultimately be widely deployed because of a scarce ingredient. No reasonably prudent person would agree that early warning center is crucial and should be opened, and then just argue about legalities while our enemies seek access to technology, which if used or even threatened, make our other disputes trivial. We don’t just need one joint early warning center. The world could benefit several, jointly hosted by rivals.
Too many Americans think that since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, that we are safer, in terms of nuclear security, than during the days of the Cold War. In fact, we are in a much more perilous situation thanks to the likes of proliferation profiteers and power hungry extremist regimes.
It is telling that the “Doomsday Clock” devised by the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has been just 5 minutes from midnight since 2007, closer than it was during the cold war. (In 1990 the clock was 10 minutes to midnight). We add to our peril and risk a closer proximity to the fateful midnight hour by the excercise of a culture of nuclear negligence in an era of enhanced risk. Since ICBM’s are no longer the only delivery vehicle, cooperation and planning cannot get caught up in details and tunnel vision.
We cannot afford to get sloppy when it comes to averting present-day nuclear threats, and yet, with the examples of helium-3 and the joint warning center, “mistake prone” is our reality. To err is human, but to commit too much error in these hyper nuclear times may ultimately be inhumane. We must do better.
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All countries are at risk with cargo container trucks. Above, China inspects a North Korean freight carrier.