The Police Chief, the Professional Voice of Law Enforcement
Advanced Search
September 2016HomeSite MapContact UsFAQsSubscribe/Renew/UpdateIACP

Current Issue
Search Archives
Web-Only Articles
About Police Chief
Law Enforcement Jobs
buyers Your Oppinion

Back to Archives | Back to February 2008 Contents 

Minimizing the Nuclear Threat: A Local Law Enforcement Strategy

By Al Goodwyn, Operations Support Directorate, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C.

nuclear attack, if carried out, would have consequences for the United States as well as the international community. In spite of these catastrophic consequences, many agencies ignore the vulnerabilities of the United States to a radiological or nuclear attack. Such an attack could be prevented by a properly trained and equipped law enforcement officer. For this reason, finances, training, equipment, and other resources are being made available to decrease the risk of this threat.

Due to the highly technical and complex nature of preventive radiological/nuclear detection, the U.S. president established the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in April 2005. The DNDO mission area includes providing support to state and local law enforcement agencies in detecting, interdicting, reporting, and ultimately preventing a catastrophic nuclear or radiological attack in the United States. One of the important functions of the DNDO is the support of local law enforcement agencies, which includes providing radiation detection training as well as assistance with grant funding applications for equipment.

Handheld detector
Many state and local law enforcement agencies are already participating in this effort through the use of radiation detection equipment during routine patrol, commercial vehicle inspections, maritime small-craft inspections, and special-events security (see figure 1). The DNDO provides immediate operational support at no cost to first responder agencies through the Joint Analysis Center (JAC). The JAC is an operations center available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that can be reached by calling 877-DNDO-JAC (877-363-6522). The JAC provides state and local law enforcement agencies, including fusion centers, with technical and operational support associated with radiation detection and radiation alarm adjudication.

Nuclear Threats

Nuclear threats can be categorized based on the nature of the delivery system. The DNDO’s primary mission is focused on preventing threats involving a nuclear weapon, a radiological dispersal device, and/or a radiation exposure device.

Nuclear Weapon: A nuclear weapon the ultimate terrorist weapon—is commonly associated with a mushroom cloud, a significant death toll, and significant destruction. These devices release nuclear energy in an explosive manner. They include state-sponsored weapons, terrorist-constructed weapons, and lost or stolen weapons.

Nuclear weapon detonation
Terrorists’ attraction to nuclear weapons is due to the destructive capability of the weapon, the horrific effects it would have on life and property, and also the economic impact on all U.S. citizens as well as the entire world (see figure 2). In the current, fast-moving age of information sharing, there is no secret to the science behind such a weapon. Even the typical high school science student can easily understand much of the early weapon technology, which was first developed over 60 years ago. The best form of prevention is to ensure the security of special nuclear material (SNM) such as uranium and plutonium, which are at the heart of a nuclear weapon’s destructive capability, and in the widespread use of radiation detectors. Improving U.S. detection capability is at the core of the DNDO mission.

The U.S. government, including the Departments of State, Energy, and Defense, in cooperation with foreign governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency, are actively working to improve the security of SNM. For example, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency implements security upgrades at nuclear sites throughout Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union. In addition, several initiatives led by the Department of Energy as well as Customs and Border Protection (within the DHS) are in place to screen cargo prior to leaving foreign countries or upon arrival at U.S. ports. Programs include the Container Security Initiative and the Megaports Initiative, as well as the recent Secure Freight Initiative. These efforts improve the ability to scan cargo for nuclear and other radiological materials at major international seaports. The October 2007 National Strategy for Homeland Security provides a summary of these and other related initiatives.1

Blast effects of a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon
To underscore the significance of a nuclear weapon, consider the destructive power equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT, which is less than either of the weapons used on Japan during World War II. Figure 3 depicts this in terms of 50 percent mortality.2 At the outer edge of each ring, 50 percent of the population would likely be killed from the blast, radiation, or intense heat. In addition, there would ensue significant injuries, economic losses, and potential political instability, as well as substantial adverse psychosocial effects on the civilian population.

Radiological Dispersal Device: A radiological dispersal device, or RDD, is commonly referred to as a “dirty bomb." This device uses radioactive material combined with a conventional explosive. When detonated, the radioactive material is dispersed, contaminating the surrounding structures. The purpose of this device is to cause economic and psychological damage rather than a lethal threat to nearby populations. In fact, the risk to life would likely be limited to the effect of its associated conventional explosive. The effectiveness of the device depends primarily on the amount of radioactive material present. Quantities significant enough to affect an area would also be extremely hazardous for terrorists to handle. However, because many terrorists do not have high regard for their own individual well-being, they would likely be willing to risk their lives.

Although an RDD has not yet been used within the United States or against U.S. populations, this threat continues to be viable. Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission), stated in 2004 that al Qaeda ”remains interested in using a radiological dispersal device, or dirty bomb; a conventional explosive designed to spread radioactive material. Documents found in al Qaeda facilities contain accurate information on the usage and impact of such weapons.”3 Like a nuclear weapon, the RDD requires radioactive material to achieve the desired effect. However, unlike with a nuclear weapon, the radioactive material needed to fashion an RDD exists in significant quantities in most countries, including the United States.

Radioactive materials enhance our everyday life through their roles in medicine, research, and industry. For example, the medical field uses these materials to diagnose illness and injury, for the treatment of cancer patients, and for sterilization of medical tools. Sources are also used in industrial applications to determine the adequacy of pipe welds, to determine soil density prior to construction activities, and even for the sterilization of food. Although radioactive source controls exist, they vary depending on the type and quantity of the radioactive material and the degree to which a country can control the material.

Used incorrectly or for illicit purposes, such radioactive material can affect health and safety in a limited population and can affect property habitability. Take, for example, a tragic accident that occurred in Goiânia, Brazil, in 1987, which resulted in the deaths of four people due to radiation exposure—one of those a six-year-old girl. The source of the radiation exposure was a medical device containing a large quantity of radioactive material called cesium-137 left in an abandoned clinic. The device sat untouched for approximately two years before individuals entered the abandoned facility and removed it, suspecting that the device might have value as scrap metal. While dismantling the device, they ruptured the radioactive source container, allowing the radioactive material to disperse easily.

From there the material was spread to family, friends, and neighbors. Two weeks elapsed between the onset of radiation sickness symptoms (swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness) and the determination of the true cause. In that length of time, 249 people were contaminated, with four of those receiving exposure significant enough to cause death. Confirmation that they were dealing with radioactive material was made when a visiting physician borrowed a uranium fuel facility’s radiation detector and immediately discovered elevated radiation readings around the home where the source was located. The psychological impact was obvious as well. Over 100,000 people were voluntarily monitored due to fear of contamination. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “[T]he accident in Goiânia had a great psychological impact on the Brazilian population. . . . Many people feared contamination, irradiation and damage to health; worse still, they feared incurable and fatal diseases.”4 This resulting psychological terror points to the value of an RDD or similar device to a terrorist organization.

Consider that the material used in the Goiânia medical device, when removed from its housing, could have been detectable a quarter of a mile away. But with no detectors present, the hazard went unrecognized. Figure 4 shows the cleanup effort in the neighborhood where the source was handled.
Radioactive contamination

Radiation Exposure Device: Similar to an RDD, the radiation exposure device (RED) relies on radioactive material but does not use an explosive component to spread the radioactivity. Instead, for terrorist purposes the device could be placed in a public location with the intent of exposing as many people as possible to high levels of radiation. These sources can be very small in physical size yet emit lethal radiation evels. The source in the Goiânia, Brazil, accident would have made an effective RED. The capsule containing the source material was a cylinder only two inches tall and two inches in diameter.

Even though the Goiânia material was detectable from a distance of a quarter of a mile, a shielded configuration could reduce the radiation levels of the source significantly. For example, three inches of lead around this source would reduce the exposure rate significantly—but it would still be detectable at a few dozen feet away.

Likelihood of Attack

Just understanding the threat does not necessarily mean that federal, state, and local agencies should fund detection capability without knowing their respective vulnerabilities and the likelihood of such an event. Clearly, though, even the slightest chance of a nuclear weapon being used against the United States warrants focus on prevention. A study sponsored by Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in June 2005 assessed the likelihood of a nuclear weapon attack. Survey results were received from 76 nonproliferation and national security experts indicating that over the next 10 years the average risk of a nuclear attack was 29 percent.5 Although not scientific, the study provides a broad perspective from those within the nuclear nonproliferation community of nuclear attack risks and points to a heightened concern that such an attack might take place.

Source Availability

Within the United States, radioactive sources unsuitable for nuclear weapons are used for many other applications. Licenses issued by federal and state governments authorizing the purchase and possession of radioactive materials fall under two main categories: general and specific. The general license applies to facilities handling relatively small sources of limited hazard, whereas specific licenses are specific to an individual source. Approximately 22,000 specific material licenses have been issued, and each year approximately 1,000 new licenses are issued.6 Most uses are for medical, academic, and industrial purposes. The availability of sources increases the probability that RDD material could fall into the hands of terrorists. It is reasonable to assume that each city or large municipality in the United States has one or more licensed facilities in its territory.

U.S. radioactive material controls are stronger than those of many other countries, but they are not without lapses in accountability and security. Many radioactive sources in the United States are associated with industrial activities and are portable, lending themselves to the possibility of loss or damage. A U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report issued in August 2003 reported that 1,300 radioactive sources had been lost, stolen, or abandoned in the United States since 1998. Those losses averaged almost 250 per year, although most were eventually recovered.7


If a law enforcement agency is either beginning or considering a preventive radiological/nuclear detection mission or is interested in enhancing its existing capabilities, a vital component is training. Individuals responsible for using detection equipment or for designing a comprehensive monitoring program must understand the equipment’s functions, its limitations, and appropriate protocols for assessing whether identified radioactive material is benign or a threat.

The DNDO provides several radiation detection training courses to the first responder community. These courses range from instruction on the use of specific detectors to broader program management issues and are designed to train law enforcement and public safety officers on the handling of radiation detectors within the bounds of their operational environment. The courses provide extensive hands-on, practical exercises with radioactive material so that personnel employing this equipment can effectively perform the following tasks:

  • Detect and locate radioactive material

  • Determine if the material may have been obtained for illicit purposes

  • Initiate support to better evaluate the material

  • Upon discovering illicit use of material, initiate protocols to ensure the health and safety of responders and the public

Table 1

Table 1 provides a list of the courses available to support a law enforcement preventive radiological/nuclear detection program. For additional information on DNDO training opportunities, please contact Tom Bourne, deputy assistant director of the DNDO training program, via e-mail at

Prevention Planning

A law enforcement agency motivated to be part of the growing preventive radiological/nuclear detection effort needs detection capability. However, a significant amount of thought and planning is required prior to putting that first detector in service.

  1. Radiation detection capabilities must be incorporated into standard operating procedures. A formalized approach to how detection assets will be used is needed for an effective preventive program.

  2. Organizational expertise is essential in bringing the correct assets to any radiation alarm, which includes equipment operations knowledge and data interpretation capability.

  3. Equipment selection is vital to ensure that the preventive detection needs are met. There is not one piece of detection equipment that will provide all of the answers for every radiation alarm event.

  4. Training will be necessary to ensure that individuals involved understand how to operate detection equipment and are aware of the protocols for detection as well as adjudicating alarms.

  5. To complement the training effort and ensure personnel remain proficient,an important program element includes drills and exercises.

  6. An operation support capability needs to be present to ensure that technical issues are addressed and to update and maintain the program.

Primary and Secondary Screening: Detector use in a prevention program is divided into two phases: a primary screening phase and a secondary screening phase. During primary screening, an individual uses equipment that provides an initial alert for the presence of radiation. This equipment might be as small as a communication pager, worn on the belt, or a large portal device for commercial-vehicle monitoring. In addition to providing an alert to the presence of radiation, the device can provide the operator with an indication of the radiation intensity. These primary screening devices will typically not, however, provide the operator with an indication of the type of material present or the legitimacy of the source.

A secondary screening device may be necessary to further adjudicate an alarm. These devices are capable of analyzing the radiation “signature” from the material in question to determine its type. All radioactive materials emit unique radiation energies that can be assessed to determine the elements present. The unique radiation energies are the signature or “fingerprint” that allows distinction between one radioactive element and another. Secondary screening devices provide this level of technical resolution and should be accessible when adjudicating a detection event. Even secondary screening devices will not necessarily provide conclusive evidence that the radioactive material present is intended for an illicit purpose. As with any law enforcement activity, a significant amount of intuition and situational awareness is necessary to adjudicate an alarm, in addition to an organizational structure that provides sufficient technical and operational support.

Technical and Operational Support for Alarm Adjudication: Figure 5 summarizes the typical flow associated with a radiation detection alarm adjudication effort. Note that screening is not necessarily the last effort taken. If a law enforcement officer or representative is not able to successfully adjudicate the alarm, additional resources are warranted. These can be provided through state or local assets. Many regions have developed the technical capability to perform alarm adjudication. This task requires both a method of transmitting data collected from the secondary screening device and an organization capable of receiving the data and performing the analysis. Data are collected in electronic files and sent via e-mail through a desktop or wireless laptop computer. Individuals providing data collection, transmission, and analytical support must have training and experience in the study of radiation spectra. Scientific disciplines that often accompany this experience are physics and health physics.
Process flow

The DNDO recognizes that the ability to adjudicate every alarm successfully is limited. One reason the JAC was established was to bridge the gap between state and local expertise and the expertise that exists within the federal government related to nuclear weapons material and design.

Within the DNDO, JAC watch officers have access to experts in nuclear smuggling, nuclear threats, terrorism, radiation phenomena, and radiation detection at the Department of Energy and DHS laboratories. These experts work to minimize the impact on the legitimate movement of people and goods by providing timely responses to all requests for technical assistance and detection alarm adjudication. The typical response time from the JAC back to a state or local agency is one hour.

In addition to a technical assessment of the data, the JAC coordinates a rapid assessment in the context of nuclear smuggling trends and threats, intelligence, and law enforcement information regarding terrorist groups and activities. Based on conclusions and recommendations provided by the JAC, the requesting site official can then make an informed determination as to whether the incident involves legitimate transportation of radioactive material or may indicate something else such as a licensing violation, criminal activity, or nuclear terrorism.

Intelligence Capabilities

To improve intelligence coordination, the federal government, through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), created field intelligence groups (FIGs) to manage intelligence-related information concerning potential U.S. threats. The groups work closely with the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), the DNDO, and various field office squads to provide information to law enforcement personnel at the state and local levels.

On the state and local level, 38 fusion centers around the country have been created to blend relevant law enforcement and intelligence information and coordinate security measures. These fusion center efforts constitute one more resource designed to reduce threats in local communities. Analysts from the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis work side by side with state and local authorities at fusion centers across the country. These analysts facilitate the two-way flow of timely, accurate, actionable information on all types of hazards.


In the past, federal agencies were given missions that had clear-cut boundaries. Today, these same agencies still have their specific missions but have also been tasked with coming together and addressing the vital mission of preventive radiological/nuclear detection. This has resulted in a major paradigm shift. It has been recognized that individual agencies can no longer handle all of the issues involved in preventing a terrorist attack. Therefore, efforts have been consolidated to resolve the issues.

Within the DNDO, a broad complement of operational and technical staff is in place to accomplish a mission that no single organization has the expertise to fulfill. The Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of State, FBI, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Coast Guard are among the organizations that provided staff to the DNDO with expertise in nuclear physics, radiation detection, and radioactive material controls. Along with training and alarm adjudication support, the following are specific DNDO objectives to support law enforcement communities and other stakeholders within the federal, state, and local governments as well as the private sector:

  • Link radiation detection information within the United States and around the globe to improve threat communication from all involved agencies

  • Conduct aggressive research and development on improved detection and communication capabilities

  • Monitor detector use, establish detection standards, develop response protocols, and provide training to ensure that the detection of threat materials and weapons leads to rapid interdiction

  • Enhance the effective sharing and use of nuclear detectionrelated information and intelligence

As discussed, there is not one type of radiation detection equipment that can satisfy all the needs of a preventive radiological/nuclear detection program. Likewise, there is not one organization with the broad expertise and assets to fully detect, assess, and adjudicate a radiological threat. It requires cooperative efforts among federal, state, and local agencies to detect, report, interdict, and ultimately prevent a catastrophic nuclear or radiological attack on the United States.■


1White House, National Strategy for Homeland Security, October 2007, (accessed December 19, 2007), 16–19.
2National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, Management of Terrorist Events Involving Radioactive Material, NCRP Report no. 138 (Bethesda, Maryland: National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, 2001), 13–24.
3National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Twelfth Public Hearing, June 16, 2004, (accessed December 19, 2007).
4International Atomic Energy Agency, The Radiological Accident in Goiânia (Vienna, Austria: International Atomic Energy Agency, 1988), (accessed December 19, 2007), 21–29, 115.
5Richard G. Lugar, The Lugar Survey on Proliferation Threats and Responses, June 2005, (accessed December 19, 2007), 14.
6U.S. Government Accountability Office, Nuclear Security: Actions Taken by NRC to Strengthen Its Licensing Process for Sealed Radioactive Sources Are Not Effective, statement by Gregory D. Kutz, July 12, 2007, GAO-07-1038T, (accessed December 19, 2007).
7U.S. General Accounting Office, Nuclear Security: Federal and State Action Needed to Improve Security of Sealed Radioactive Sources, GAO-03-804, August 2003, (accessed December 19, 2007), 4



From The Police Chief, vol. 75, no. 2, February 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

The official publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The online version of the Police Chief Magazine is possible through a grant from the IACP Foundation. To learn more about the IACP Foundation, click here.

All contents Copyright © 2003 - International Association of Chiefs of Police. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright and Trademark Notice | Member and Non-Member Supplied Information | Links Policy

44 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA USA 22314 phone: 703.836.6767 or 1.800.THE IACP fax: 703.836.4543

Created by Matrix Group International, Inc.®