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Program To Detect Smuggled Nuclear Bombs Stalls 224

Pickens writes "The NY Times reports that a program to detect plutonium or uranium in shipping containers has stalled because the United States has run out of helium 3, a crucial raw material needed to build the 1,300 to 1,400 machines to be deployed in ports around the world to thwart terrorists who might try to deliver a nuclear bomb to a big city by stashing it in one of the millions of containers that enter the United States every year. Helium 3 is an unusual form of the element that is formed when tritium, an ingredient of hydrogen bombs, decays — but the government mostly stopped making tritium in 1989 after accumulating a substantial stockpile of Helium 3 as a byproduct of maintaining nuclear weapons. 'I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable,' says Representative Brad Miller, chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the problem. Helium 3 is not hazardous or even chemically reactive, and it is not the only material that can be used for neutron detection. The Homeland Security Department has older equipment that can look for radioactivity, but it does not differentiate well between bomb fuel and innocuous materials that naturally emit radiation like cat litter, ceramic tiles and bananas — and sounds false alarms more often. In a letter to President Obama, Miller called the shortage 'a national crisis' and said the price had jumped to $2,000 a liter from $100 in the last few years. With continuing concern that Al Qaida or other terrorists will try to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States, Congress has mandated that, by 2012, all containers bound for the US be inspected overseas."
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Program To Detect Smuggled Nuclear Bombs Stalls

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  • by tjstork ( 137384 ) <todd.bandrowsky@gma i l .com> on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:12PM (#30207834) Homepage Journal

    The moon is covered in helium 3. There, we have to have a manned lunar colony in order to be safe from terrorists!

  • by Todd Knarr ( 15451 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:19PM (#30207912) Homepage

    Sure, this was foreseeable. But at the time nobody needed large quantities of this sort of radiation-detection gear, and nobody foresaw circumstances where we'd suddenly develop a huge demand for it. So when production was stopped, nobody saw the consequences as being any major problem.

  • by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:33PM (#30208100) Journal

    I'm guessing there's also a shortage of Tritium which decays into Helium-3 with a half-life of 12 years. If you have enough Tritium around and wait long enough, you'll have fresh Helium-3. You can make more Tritium by exposing Lithium-6 to a high neutron flux like that found in nuclear reactors. The neutron splits the Li6 as LI6 + n => T + He4. Russia might have quite a bit of it laying around owing to the size of their nuclear arsenal that we could buy.

  • by fragMasterFlash ( 989911 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:39PM (#30208166)
    If cocaine emitted a detectable neutron signature the war on drugs would have been won years ago, IMHO.
  • by Snarkalicious ( 1589343 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:44PM (#30208214)
    The purpose of the border check system was never to actually stop the flow of drugs, silly. It was to drive out as many small players as possible, and concentrate the market into a few well funded/armed cartels. In this way, bribes come in at the director/secretary/senatorial level in a quiet and efficiant manner. Skipping the middle man (i.e. the border guard/local sheriff) on the bribery chain keeps my smack nice n' cheap.
  • Umm, what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by syncrotic ( 828809 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:50PM (#30208268)

    There's seriously a program aimed at developing and deploying a fleet of nuclear bomb detectors at every port in the United States?

    What kind of ridiculous bullshit is this? Did someone at the DHS watch a few episodes of 24 to come up with this? It's movie-plot anti-terrorism at its absolute worst: imaging ridiculously specific scenarios and spending enormous amounts of money to guard against them.

    As if a terrorist organization resourceful enough to obtain a *nuclear fucking weapon* would somehow have difficulty bringing it into the country. This is a nation into which several metric tonnes of cocaine and thousands of illegal immigrants are successfully smuggled every year, and someone imagines that they'll be able to erect a perfect wall to keep a few kilograms of metal out of the country?

    What congressman's nephew is being paid to make these detectors?

  • by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:50PM (#30208276)

    It seems we know how to do just about anything these days, but lack the ability to actually get it done

  • Another Crisis? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Vengance Daemon ( 946173 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:53PM (#30208306)
    Is there anything going on in the U.S. today that is NOT a "national crisis"? We need a break.
  • Re:Umm, what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by horza ( 87255 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:16PM (#30208540) Homepage

    Indeed. It's not as though US law enforcement aren't being given insufficient tools for the job. Detention without charge, torture, no access to legal council for suspects, abductions of suspects from any country, mass surveillance without oversight, biometric controls at airports... Shouldn't the wholesale abandonment of liberty have bought you a bit of safety?


  • Re:0.4 Kevins (Score:4, Insightful)

    by confused one ( 671304 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:33PM (#30208702)
    I am sorry, but other than the midget crack in the first line, that was amusing and quite harmless.
  • by deboli ( 199358 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:48PM (#30209264) Homepage

    You don't need to land the bomb to cause lots of damage. Anyone resourceful enough to get hold of a nuclear bomb will probably know about the detection system and the best risk avoidance is to detonate it before unloading. You could detonate it below the waterline (in the ship) or above ground (hoisted off deck by the port crane) to be as destructive as possible. No detection possible unless you scan cargo 20km offshore.

  • by Falconhell ( 1289630 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:59PM (#30209346) Journal

    ROFLMAO, come on mods, he cant be serious.

    No one is THAT stupid surely.

    Then again whenever someone writes Barrack "Hussein" Obama you just never know if they are real paranoid right wing nutjobs, or just satirising them.

    Words cannot describe how much I enjoy their terrified thrashing around now a decent intelligent black man is President. Fun times.

  • Re:Umm, what? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Falconhell ( 1289630 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @10:13PM (#30209432) Journal

    Because it it totally impossible that a container could be added to a ship already at sea. I mean its not as if ships have cranes or anything.

  • Re:Another Crisis? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by GrumblyStuff ( 870046 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @10:18PM (#30209456)

    It's the consequence of giving anyone the position to make announcements and proclamations. Even without the government, night news would still be on at 6 to tell you that something IN YOUR HOME or AT SCHOOL or ON THE JOB can kill you!!!

  • Re:Another Crisis? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by GrumblyStuff ( 870046 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @10:21PM (#30209480)


    on at 6 to tell you at 11.

  • by gbutler69 ( 910166 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @10:36PM (#30209568) Homepage
    Yes. That's the idea. These things can scan traffic for nuclear materials as you drive through at 30 mph.
  • Re:Umm, what? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by syncrotic ( 828809 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @11:44PM (#30209922)

    Actually, you don't. Know me, I mean.

  • by u38cg ( 607297 ) <> on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @04:00AM (#30210926) Homepage
    Well, year on year, cigarettes kill more people than nukes. Amazing, really, and it's just a plant.
  • by anorlunda ( 311253 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:01AM (#30212488) Homepage

    The NYT article says that the current demand for H3 is 65,000 liters per year. WTF!!!

    I can't believe that so much H3 is needed for new screening machines. It must be true that the machines are leaking the H3 or contaminating it and thus needing to replenish it all the time.

    If it were private industry rather than Homeland Security that wanted the screening function, the regulators would force them to refine the design until they need only one liter or less per machine, and then to protect the asset so that it never leaks or gets contaminated. One liter per ten years per screening machine sounds like a more reasonable quota.

    I attribute this crisis to the inability of government to regulate itself.

    By the way, I live on my sailboat and cruise internationally. I know that hundreds of thousands of recreational boats enter the USA every year. Every one of them is capable of carrying one or more nuclear warheads. Are these boats screened? No. In many cases they just call a 800 number to report their entry.

  • Re:Umm, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by radtea ( 464814 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @10:48AM (#30213600)

    Because it's impossible to load a bomb onto a ship while it is at sea.

    And a nuclear bomb is so big it can't fit into a modest-sized sailboat of the kind that people have been known to sail around the world in. There are thousands upon thousands of such boats, and the rate of inspection of cargo is pretty much nil. So unless you're going to stop everyone crusing along your coasts and inspect them, no matter how small the boat, you're going to have to live with the risk that nuclear weapons will be delivered to your shores.

    I'm sure the Organs of the State would love to institute a program of random coastal inspection. After all, harrassing innocent sailors is the only way to keep America safe, and the revenue they could generate from seizing yachts would no-doubt keep them in coke and hookers for a long, long time.

Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. -- Thomas Jefferson