Archive for May, 2012

Border Breach – Twice

May 29, 2012


Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2012 by Charles Glassmire


May 28, 2012

Border Breach – Twice

 “Fool me once and shame on thee…”

           On the fourth of July, 2002, almost one year after 9/11, two nondescript American travellers began a journey across seven countries of Europe, heading ultimately for the United States. Among the luggage accompanying them, was a medium sized suitcase. It contained a metal pipe about the size of a soda can, lined with lead. Inside this can was 15 pounds of the element Uranium.

          Natural Uranium contains about 0.72 percent of the U235 isotope. The Uranium sample being transported was classified as “depleted”, meaning it contained less than the natural .72 percent of 235. To be used in a nuclear weapon this sample would need to be enriched to 85 or 90% U235.  Thus, neither natural nor depleted Uranium is suitable for use as a nuclear bomb. But even depleted U is radioactive and is dangerous for use as a terrorist “dirty bomb”.

          So our travelers proceeded on their journey by train, with the suitcase comfortably tucked into the luggage rack above their seats. Crossing the border into Hungary their passports were examined, but the suitcase remained undisturbed overhead. From there the train proceeded to Romania and across the Transylvanian Alps. Again no attention was paid to the baggage. Then through the spreading landscape of Bulgaria and on to Turkey; without any question of the contents of the baggage.

          Istanbul is known to authorities as a crossroads of nuclear black market smuggling.  This team was following precisely the route across Europe known to be used by smugglers transporting Uranium from the former Soviet Union.  From here, export to the Middle East is simple. During the entire 47 hour rail journey no radiation detectors were in evidence, and the baggage arrived undisturbed in Istanbul.

          “Turkish authorities report they have detected more than100 cases of such attempted   smuggling in the last few years…” (1)

           Luckily, this team was not a group of dedicated terrorists. Rather, they were employees of ABCNEWS from the United States. The objective was to see whether it was possible to smuggle a dirty bomb past all authorities and into continental United States. So far their detection score was hovering at zero.

          Within a few hours of arriving in Turkey, the baggage was being prepared to move by sea into a port of the United States. A very decorative oriental chest was purchased on the street, the suitcase was placed inside and the assembly was then nailed inside a wooden crate. To avoid legal problems in case authorities detected the shipment, it was clearly marked that it contained depleted Uranium. (For education or research purposes, a United States citizen is allowed to possess up to 15 pounds of depleted Uranium under Nuclear Regulatory Commission general license.)

          Shipments by sea are packed into large shipping containers, usually 40’x8’x8’ and the metal container itself is then sealed before loading aboard ship. So now our ersatz “dirty bomb” found itself nestled beside “­crates of hugh vases and Turkish horse carts (1) . The shipping company now in charge of the crate did not know or check to see what was inside the crate. Loaded on board ship it sailed on July 10, now securely on its way to the Port of New York, U.S.A.

          Graham Allison is an expert on nuclear terrorism and at that time the Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He was also a former Assistant Secretary of Defense. He said

           “A ship, I think, is one of the most dangerous delivery devices. A weapon or material in the belly of a ship has been one of the nightmare scenarios for people that think about how nuclear weapons might arrive in the U.S.” (1)

           In the mid 1990’s, documents were seized from one of Osama Bin Laden’s high aides. They indicate Bin Laden planned at that time, to use shipping containers packed with sesame seeds to smuggle high-grade radioactive material into the United States(1)

           On 29 July at 2 a.m., our suitcase sailed under the bridges of New York and tied up at the Staten Island dock outside of the City of New York. U.S. Customs performed the usual inspection of the cargo container and it passed into continental United States. (Later, Customs claimed they had singled out the crate for X-ray examination and had found nothing dangerous.)  Within several days the unopened crate was on a truck being transported into Manhattan. The container was delivered to a New York Port Authority warehouse on Pier No.1, across the river from Manhattan, just below the Brooklyn Bridge (1)


(1)   “Customs fails to Detect Depleted Uranium”, ABC News, page 1 to 3, Sept. 11, 2002.