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G.M. Gaukler, C. Li, S.S. Chirayath, and Y. Ding, "Detecting Nuclear Materials Smuggling: Performance Evaluation of Container Inspection Policies," Risk Analysis 32(3), 531-554 (2012).


In recent years, the United States, along with many other countries, has significantly increased its detection and defense mechanisms against terrorist attacks. A potential attack with a nuclear weapon, using nuclear materials smuggled into the country, has been identified as a particularly grave threat. The system for detecting illicit nuclear materials that is currently in place at U.S. ports of entry relies heavily on passive radiation detectors and a risk-scoring approach using the Automated Targeting System (ATS). In this article we analyze this existing inspection system and demonstrate its performance for several smuggling scenarios. We provide evidence that the current inspection system is inherently incapable of reliably detecting sophisticated smuggling attempts that use small quantities of well-shielded nuclear material. To counter the weaknesses of the current ATS-based inspection system, we propose two new inspection systems: the Hardness Control System (HCS) and the Hybrid Inspection system (HYB). The HCS uses radiography information to classify incoming containers based on their cargo content into "hard" or "soft" containers, which then go through different inspection treatment. The HYB combines the radiography information with the intelligence information from the ATS. We compare and contrast the relative performance of these two new inspection systems with the existing ATS-based system. Our studies indicate that the HCS and HYB policies outperform the ATS-based policy for a wide range of realistic smuggling scenarios. We also examine the impact of changes in adversary behavior on the new inspection systems and find that they effectively preclude strategic gaming behavior of the adversary.

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Associated Project(s):

  • SHIELD (Smuggled HEU Interdiction through Enhanced anaLysis and Detection): A Framework for Developing Novel Detection Systems Focused on Interdicting Shielded HEU

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