At a facility near the remote Hanford nuclear waste site in eastern Washington,
U.S. border guards are acquiring the skills to thwart smugglers. Armed with
a wealth of information, the latest technologies, and their own intuition, agents
are learning how to uncover illegal shipments of hazardous materials.
The International Border Security Training program, held at the Hazardous Materials
Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) facility in Richland, Wash., is designed
to familiarize border guards with the parts used to manufacture and smuggle
nuclear, biological and chemical materials and to stop the illegal export of
The course grew out of Congress’ concern over Russia’s ability
to keep track of its supply of radioactive material. Legislators came up with
funding to train international border guards for that purpose.
The first class of students, from Hungary and Slovakia, began the program shortly
after the HAMMER facility opened in 1997. Since then, 15 countries, including
Russia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Ukraine and Bulgaria,
have sent officials for training. About 400 foreign guards have graduated from
Instructors say the training pays off. Although they would not discuss the
specifics of any confiscation of radioactive material, they said there have
been numerous seizures. Bulgarians, said one instructor, have been the most
active in stopping the export of smuggled goods.
In May 2002, at the urging of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s
Second Line of Defense program, training at HAMMER was expanded to include U.S.
border personnel. Since then, about 425 U.S. border guards have gone through
As of October, the program will run twice a month, offering training to twice
as many border guards as before.
Anything that can be done to make it easier for border guards to find smuggled
goods helps, said William Cliff, program manager of the International Border
Security National Security Directorate.
Cliff is the lead instructor for the three-day program.
Border guards have a difficult task, he said. “You have to believe that
smugglers are very smart too. They have a lot of money and they can do a lot
Some of the things smugglers have done to hide illicit cargo include building
fake walls and floors inside semi-trucks. Other methods are much simpler. For
example, placing paraffin wax around plutonium prevents the detection of gamma
rays and neutrons, making it difficult for border guards to find. Even small
components used in the manufacturing of nuclear reactors can be shipped alongside
Cmdr. Tommey Meyers was the first U.S. Coast Guardsman to go through the three-day
training. He said the quality of information, especially having to do with radiation
detection, was “second to none.”
“It’s very comprehensive,” he said.
Meyers will report back to Coast Guard officials about the program. Eventually,
a Coast Guard training analysis group will attend the course to see if it meets
the service’s training objectives, Meyers said.
“We have a working group looking at how we can help inspectors who might
encounter radiation out there,” he said. “We’ll evaluate future
attendance by the Coast Guard.”
The Coast Guard has been inspecting ships as part of its regular duties, Meyers
said. “We’ve done container inspections and port security for years.”
The training did give Meyers an opportunity to see first hand the variety of
detectors currently available. The Coast Guard’s equipment is old, he
“We just awarded a contract for detectors,” Meyers said. “It’s
different equipment than what U.S. Customs has. They [are] way ahead of the
Sometimes, however, technology can’t always spot questionable shipments.
Oftentimes, it’s a keen eye and an inquisitive mind that find contraband.
Many components for developing weapons have legitimate uses, instructors warned.
For example, carbon fiber can be used to make tennis rackets, golf clubs and
missile casings. Some equipment used for making biological or chemical weapons
also has medical applications.
It is often impossible for inspectors to tell the difference between various
metals, including those that might be used in nuclear reactors or weapons. Misstated
shipping contents are another obstacle for agents to overcome.
Requiring an export license and investigating who buys materials does prevent
items from landing in the wrong hands, said Steve Baker, an instructor from
Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
In one example cited during the course, a customs agent questioned a shipment
of agar headed for Iraq. Agar is used for growing medical and biological cultures.
The agent noted that it was out of place to see a second large shipment of agar
to Iraq. An initial shipment had come through the port weeks earlier. Concerned
that the material may be used to grow bacteria for biological weapons, the inspector
passed the information along to his supervisor who sent it to his headquarters.
The information was eventually relayed to the World Health Organization. They
questioned Iraqi officials as to why they needed so much agar. The Iraqis said
it was for their hospitals. But according to Earl Morgan, an instructor with
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, such shipments would have lasted the
Iraqi hospitals at least 200 years.
“This again, points out, the need for weapons of mass destruction knowledge
by border inspectors,” said Morgan.
The shipment was eventually confiscated.
Even some everyday items, such as smoke detectors, watches and marble tile,
give off small amounts of radiation that is easily detected by hand-held devices.
Students were warned that it would be easy to pack radioactive material with
such non-hazardous items.
That is why instructors emphasized that suspicious cargo should be thoroughly
“Once a determination is made to [do a] search, it’s not a partial
search,” said Cliff.
About three years ago at Los Angeles International Airport, a customs agent
detected a shipment of radioactive material. Upon further inspection the items
turned out to be museum-quality uranium crystals headed for a rock show in Arizona.
The container in which the rocks were shipped, however, had been mislabeled.
The rocks were just listed as ore.
Cliff said the rocks are worth several thousand dollars. Because the rocks
were radioactive, they were confiscated by customs officials and are now used
in the training exercises at HAMMER.
Smugglers who are finding new ways to get around inspectors are pushing the
investment in new detection technologies, Cliff said.
“That’s the driver for additional equipment,” he added.
But even armed with the latest technologies, hours of instruction, a thick
binder filled with diagrams, notes and product names, instinct—that gut
feeling that something isn’t right—often leads a border guard to
search cargo, instructors said.
“There’s a huge amount of that,” Cliff said. “To recognize
the unusual you have to know the usual.”
For example, one instructor installed a fire extinguisher inside the cargo
container of a tractor-trailer. To the untrained eye, the item wouldn’t
draw attention, but the teacher said inspectors should question why an extinguisher
is inside the trailer. The presence of the fire extinguisher should raise questions
about the cargo, the instructor said. The extinguisher also could be used to
With the heightened concern over weapons of mass destruction, attention is
being placed on scrutinizing shipments carefully, reading import and export
documents, looking at a shipment’s country of origin and its destination,
knowing the manufacturers and recognizing permits.
A number of federal agencies have set up hotline numbers to answer questions
from inspectors in the field about export controlled items, chemicals and components
for producing nuclear material. Hotlines also have been created so inspectors
can link up with laboratories and scientific service centers. Some of the hotlines
provide assistance when using detectors or mobile X-ray equipment. Hotlines
also connect customs officials so they can keep abreast of any incidents.
Instructors also wanted to dispel rumors about radiation. For example, weapons
grade plutonium is not highly radioactive. The average person is exposed to
about 360 mrem (a unit used to measure the effect of radiation on the human
body) a year from Radon, cosmic rays, soil, X-rays, cigarettes and even television.
“Customs personnel, even in the worst scenario, are unlikely to be exposed
to significant radiation,” Richard Arthur, an instructor at PNNL, told
While the classroom sessions offered the inspectors glimpses into weapons of
mass destruction, their delivery systems and the effects those weapons could
have on the population, it was the outdoor exercises that gave the participants
an opportunity to put their skills to work.
Within yards of the fenced-off Hanford site is a specialized facility with
equipment and props to provide realistic field training for border guards. Vehicles
with a small amount of highly enriched Uranium 235, or a tube with 100 grams
of weapons grade plutonium are set up for students to examine.
Four teams made up of six students each, scoured vehicles with hand-held devices
and dosimeters, a pager-sized radiation detector, looking for abnormally high
readings. Each participant was given a dosimeter to wear throughout the training.
During one of the training exercises, students combed through a tractor-trailer
looking for nuclear material. Several 10-foot long zirconium bars were placed
next to similar looking rods embedded in the truck’s floor. Without a
detector, the hard, silvery, zirconium, used in nuclear reactors, would never
have been found.
In another vehicle search, two different items emitting radiation were placed
inside the passenger compartment of a large pick-up truck. Using hand-held monitors
or small personal detection devices, students were able to easily find the less
harmful of the two packages. However, the instructor had to remind them to continue
A second item was buried beneath cardboard boxes and stored below the rear-folding
seat. Had the inspectors stopped their search after the first discovery, they
would have missed finding a second smaller container of weapons grade plutonium.
Students also get to see the latest technologies, such as a series of 10-foot
tall drive-through scanners that can determine, in seconds, if a vehicle is
emitting gamma rays (generated by radioactive atoms). Some of the systems currently
are in use in Eastern Europe. Students also get experience with the newest hand-held
ultrasound device to find hidden shipments in fuel tanks.
“We’re looking at more cargo than we used to,” said Robert
Hessler, with the U.S. Customs Service at the Federal Law Enforcement Training
Center, in Georgia. “New toys make the job easier.”
The battery-powered Acoustic Inspection Device (AID), which resembles a hand-held
power drill, was developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. It can
be used on containers ranging in size from six inches to almost 100 inches in
diameter. It works like a small sonar device, bouncing a signal off the back
of a liquid filled container. The device emits a “ping” when the
signal is received. A Personal Digital Assistant also records the sound wave.
Once the device determines the speed it takes for a sound wave to reach the
other side and return, it is easy to determine if a container has a hidden item.
“[The device] grew out of the chemical weapons detection treaty verification
program,” said Dick Pappas, a senior research scientist with PNNL. “It
became apparent the device had various applications.” It can determine
different liquids in a container, said Pappas.
Because of the relative ease in using the device, border guards can quickly
scan numerous containers, sorting out those with questionable content. This
feature allows an agent to separate containers into similar and dissimilar liquids
and to find items that may be mislabeled, or to find dangerous cargo that has
been mixed in with legitimate shipments.
AID is commercially available and is being used by U.S. Customs agents in Eastern
Europe as well as U.S. law enforcement. It also was employed by United Nations
weapons inspectors searching for chemical weapons in Iraq.
However, students using the monitor to examine propane tanks soon discovered
that the device didn’t work. According to Pappas, AID does not work on
When the acoustic inspection device was unable to detect contraband, students
used a small camera attached to an eight-foot long tube to get a glimpse of
the inside of a fuel tank.
The camera also allows inspectors to peer inside hidden compartments while
protecting themselves from explosive devices.
The Material Identification System aids border guards searching for strategic
or nuclear dual-use materials. The device measures the flow of electrical currents
through metal in less than five seconds. About twice the size of a PDA, it compares
information gathered from the search with a database containing international
export control regulations. It can be used to identify metals such as zirconium,
graphite and beryllium—all used in building nuclear reactors.
Recognizing illegal biological and chemical materials can be even more difficult.
The ability to disguise viruses, such as small pox, or bacteria, such as anthrax,
makes these substances more dangerous. Small amounts, which can be carried in
a tiny glass vial, can be enough to sicken several hundred people.
“These materials are difficult to detect,” said Morgan. “[They]
can be transported in material as small as a pellet in a mislabeled container.”
Morgan had vials, Petri dishes and containers with infectious specimens such
as E. coli. He also had equipment for processing, storing and dispersing biological
agents. He demonstrated for the inspectors how easy it would be to carry a small
vial of anthrax in one’s pocket.
Biological agents are cheaper and easier to get than nuclear materials, instructors
noted. And once a biological substance has been released into the public, it
could take weeks before any symptoms of an attack become apparent.
Not every biological agent is as deadly as anthrax. Some can be used to wreak
havoc by destroying crops and livestock, said Morgan, who is also a veterinarian.
Confiscating items associated with biological weapons is a matter of knowing
what to look for. Some items have U.S. export controls, such as certain types
of glove boxes, centrifuges, fermenters, freeze-drying equipment and aerosol
inhalation chambers, Morgan said.
Attempts to ratify control and export guidelines have failed to garner worldwide
support. Although 162 countries have signed the United Nations’ Biological
and Toxin Weapons Convention, 32 have not.
The next review does not come up until 2006, said Morgan.
Inspectors need to pay attention not only to items that fall under export controls,
but large shipments of agar, shipments of bio hazard suits, containers with
unusual odors, unusual quantities of biological material packed alongside personal
belongings and questionable shipping paperwork. These are all signs of attempts
to ship hazardous materials, Morgan said.
“You need to make decisions quickly,” he told the class.
Chemical agents may be easier than biological agents for border guards to spot,
said Dave Nelson, an instructor with PNNL. Recognizing components of some chemicals
is key to identifying dangerous substances.
Chemicals containing phosphonic, for example, should be considered suspect,
he said. Phosphonic is a derivative of phosphorous acid.
Inspectors need to carefully read over documents looking for any mention of
similar compounds. Some combinations of chemicals can be used to produce Sarin,
a nerve agent. Chemicals also have their own, unique Chemical Abstract Service
(CAS) number to help further identify them.
Sarin was used by Aum Shinnikyo in March 1995 in an attack on the Tokyo subway.
Eleven died, and thousands were injured.
Nelson told students they also need to look for specific precursor chemicals,
such as hydraulics, pesticides and flame retardants, that could be additives
to chemical weapons.
Other chemical agents include mustard (a blistering agent) and Halothane—used
by the Russians to overcome about 50 Chechens who had taken 800 people hostage
inside a Moscow theater in October 2002. About 120 people died in the absence
of an immediate antidote, said Nelson.
Because of the lethality of many chemical agents, students were warned to take
precautions when handling spilled or leaking cargo. In those cases, shipments
should be secured until the contents are known.
Inspectors also should have protective gear, such as gloves and masks, readily
Although protective gas masks offer some safeguards against chemicals, some
substances, such as fluorohydrocarbons, have been used to neutralize the protective
qualities of masks, said Nelson.
There are a number of detection devices, including paper strip detectors, that
change color because of a chemical reaction, and the HAZMATCAD, a hand-held
instrument that detects and classifies chemical agents. Labrador retrievers,
German shepherds and Belgian Malinois also are used for chemical detection.