The revelation last week that Slovak and Hungarian police arrested three men suspected of selling uranium powder is sure to spark an investigation into how security at the source of those materials failed. It would be wise, though, to study not only how defenses failed but also how authorities succeeded in breaking up the plot.
As the United States pours billions of dollars into technologies designed to detect nuclear materials, this latest episode is a firm reminder find that dull and old-fashioned police work, rather than new and exciting science, is central to a smart defense against nuclear terrorism.
A fixation on technological solutions to sophisticated security challenges pervades the nuclear sphere. During the Cold War, the shining example was “star wars,” an understandable but flawed attempt to find a technical solution to the strategic problem of preventing nuclear war. In the fight against nuclear terrorism, it has manifested itself as a drive to find new technologies that would defeat nuclear smuggling.
Since the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office was created in 2005, spending on detection technology has sharply increased. The office is requesting $562 million for next year, a 17 percent increase over the previous year — and more than fivefold what was spent before the office was set up in 2005. Its focus has been on developing a system of detectors that would dramatically increase the odds of catching terrorists who attempted to smuggle nuclear weapons or materials into the United States ; most of its money has been spent on developing and deploying sophisticated and pricey technology. Some of that is important and useful. But it would be tragic if it were to blind us to other equally, if not more, powerful tools.