After 9/11, a Rush to Improve Port Security

Mohammad Ahmed on how nuclear physicists mobilized after 9/11 -- and how more work is still needed

Part of the 15 Years After 9/11 Series

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks prompted a major push to secure our nation’s seaports from the threat of nuclear terrorism.

But successfully sniffing out small amounts of radioactive material inside the millions of shipping containers that arrive at our ports each year can pose numerous logistical and technological hurdles, says Mohammad Ahmed, an adjunct associate professor of physics at Duke University.

“It is a task on which you cannot fail even once,” says Ahmed, also an associate professor of physics at North Carolina Central University.  

In the years following the attacks, many nuclear physicists rallied around this challenge, focusing less on answering fundamental scientific questions and more on developing low-cost and large-scale cargo scanners to protect the nation’s seaports.

This attention on solving a real-world problem marked a change in the trajectory of the field, says Ahmed.

 “During the era from World War II until now, applied nuclear physics research had two predominant pillars: nuclear energy and weapons research. Meanwhile, the mainstream nuclear physics scientific community was focused on answering fundamental questions in the field,” Ahmed says.

Port Newark
( Port Newark is the principal container ship facility for goods entering and leaving New York City. Photo by Doc Searls / Wikimedia )

“Since 9/11, a new pillar has been added to the foundations of the applied work: national nuclear security. The nuclear physics community has again pulled together the greatest minds to come up with a solution to the nuclear threat to the nation,” Ahmed says.

The resurgence in applied research was spurred in part by changes in federal priorities and funding. In 2005, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), an office of the Department of Homeland Security, charged the nuclear physics community with creating a mechanism for scanning all cargo entering US ports for special nuclear materials. This marked the beginning of a boost in applied research funding from the both the DNDO and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

“A new generation of students, the graduate students, the post-docs, were getting involved and excited about this community charge,” Ahmed said.  

The community push has advanced the fundamental science needed for this task, and a few systems are being commercially developed and tested for field deployment. However, work is still required to advance the radiation scanning technology to be used in our ports beyond what was available prior to 9/11.

“If there is one single weapon of mass destruction being smuggled in through millions of containers which pass through the Los Angeles port, that’s a threat you want to identify with zero error,” Ahmed says. “There are steps you have to take. This task is not accomplished in one shot.”

Changes in port shipping protocols, such as the Container Security Initiative, which requires that cargo be screened at its port of origin before setting sail for the U.S., have been enacted to increased port security.

“Now it is our moral duty, it is our charge as a community, to come up with a solution to reduce or neutralize the nuclear threat to the nation,” Ahmed said.