Albert Einstein's historic August 1939 letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned that Nazi Germany was likely to exploit scientific discoveries that could initiate "a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power" would be generated. Einstein ominously warned of "extremely powerful bombs" that might be "carried by a boat and exploded in a port" and that could "destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory." His call for urgent action led, of course, to the Manhattan Project, the creation of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and development of the atomic bomb.
Now, more than seven decades on — in this age of terrorism by rogue and non-state actors — we have no less cause for alarm.
Nuclear terrorism — by the detonation of a nuclear device smuggled into our country — is widely recognized to be not only plausible, but also probable. Security experts warn that there is more than sufficient unaccounted for fissile material to construct numerous devices. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush both have warned of the attempts by terrorist groups to acquire nuclear components.
The consequences of even a single act of radiological or nuclear terrorism in a major American city could be far worse than predicted in Einstein's prescient letter. Consider the crushing impact had the Tsarnaev brothers utilized not a pressure cooker as an explosive device, but instead a radiation-dispersal device ("dirty bomb"). Moreover, last fall's Superstorm Sandy so vividly reminded us of the massive destruction that can be dealt — even under circumstances where the threat is well-anticipated and tracked, and responsible citizenry, together with relevant federal, state and local authorities have taken extensive precautionary measures. A terrorist detonation of a nuclear weapon, in stark contrast, would likely come without warning and with no opportunity to prepare or evacuate. The loss of life, incalculable human suffering, sense of vulnerability, economic devastation and breakdown in social order would be nothing short of catastrophic. It could make the Boston Marathon bombing and even Sandy's devastation look like child's play.
Ironically, our greatest vulnerability to these threats remains through the same maritime shipping ports of which Einstein wrote — through which millions of cargo containers or other conveyances enter our nation each year. As three members of Congress wrote: "Cargo containers arriving on ships from foreign ports offer terrorists a Trojan horse for a devastating attack on the United States." Quoting Harvard University national-security analyst Graham Allison, they noted that a nuclear attack "is far more likely to arrive in a cargo container than on the tip of a missile." Underscoring this threat, Vice President Joe Biden warned this year's graduates of the Coast Guard Academy — the newly minted protectors of our shores — that they enter a world filled with stateless actors harboring a desire "to smuggle weapons of terror into American ports in the belly of cargo containers to do our people great harm."
Responding to the 9/11 Commission's grave concerns regarding such threats, a federal law passed six years ago mandated that before being loaded onto ships, all cargo bound for the United States be scanned. Unfortunately, the 2012 deadline for enforcement of this directive was not met, and was deferred for two years by the Department of Homeland Security. The stated reason was the absence of technology that could — without slowing the flow of commerce or raising health concerns — accurately and economically detect heavily shielded, as well as unshielded, nuclear material.
But, in fact, a solution is now at hand. Seventy-four years after Einstein's letter, transformational American technology is now capable of providing a much-needed safeguard against misuse of the forces our forebears unleashed. With striking historical symmetry, research initiated by modern-day physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and further developed by private industry has resulted in a passive detection system that meets all the requirements of safety, reliability, speed and cost. Moreover, it has now been independently tested, operationally deployed, and successfully demonstrated at a major port. This revolutionary system, based on muon tomography — the tracking of naturally existing, harmless cosmic particles — can finally bring us closer to the end of the arc of history initiated by Einstein.
Our government's most fundamental responsibility is, of course, to protect its citizens, our freedom and our way of life. Given the threat of the illicit use of radiological materials and nuclear weapons, our leaders must redouble efforts to aggressively embrace and facilitate the deployment of all available preventative measures — at maritime ports, border crossings and other critical infrastructure. We must take all reasonable steps to address the 9/11 Commission's concerns, to meet the existing federal mandate, and thereby avoid what Mr. Allison has called the "ultimate preventable catastrophe." Time is not on our side.
Stuart J. Rabin is chairman of Decision Sciences International Corp. David B. Waller was deputy director general and head of management of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1993 through 2011.