Shipping Containers: The Poor Man’s ICBM

share this

By Matthew Wallin

60,000 people dead—instantly. 150,000 more exposed to hazardous radiation.  All ships and infrastructure at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach destroyed.  An exodus of six million people from the greater Los Angeles region.  Initial costs of $1 trillion.  This is exactly the scenario considered in a 2006 RAND Corporation study of the effects of a possible detonation of a 10-kiloton nuclear device hidden in a standard 20-foot shipping container.  In 2010 alone, these ports received a combined total of over 7.2 million 20-foot equivalent containers.   Haystack indeed.

Yet what exactly are the risks of such an event occurring, and who is likely to attempt such a feat?  The answers are difficult to ascertain.  The most obvious answer to arise over the past decade is the concern over a terrorist organization or rogue nation attempting this route.  Even then, due to the natural complexity of building or obtaining a nuclear weapon, there has been a vigorous debate on the likelihood of such a scenario occurring.

Given the difficulty involved in developing successful delivery systems for  nuclear weapons,  such as missiles, and the attention given to anti-ballistic missile systems in recent years, it would seem both those technologies are rendered partially irrelevant when a shipping container can suffice as a poor man’s ICBM.  Certainly that carries a great amount of risk for the attacker as well, but as the 9/11 commission stated in its report, partial reasoning for the success of the attacks was due to a “failure of imagination” on the part of the United States.

But assuming the ability of nuclear forensics to determine the origin of intercepted or exploded nuclear materials, would a state or terrorist organization be dissuaded from attempting such an attack?  This is also difficult to determine.  Given the number of actors potentially involved in a “nuclear supply chain,” the risk of identification as an involved party may dissuade some, while not affecting others.  Even so, the state of our nuclear forensics capability has been called into doubt, as expertise and resources have declined since the end of the cold war.

Certainly though, the thought of using shipping containers as weapon delivery platforms has not gone unexplored.  In fact, a Russian company recently debuted its “Pandora’s Box” Club-K Cruise Missile system, cleverly hidden inside a shipping container.

Terrorist organizations have also had their eye on shipping infrastructure.  The recently departed Osama Bin Laden himself considered attacks on oil tankers.  Given the issues of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Malacca, the idea of terrorists committing an ecological and economic Hiroshima isn’t so farfetched.

So what is being done to prevent a nuclear or radiological attack?  In the 1990s, the Nunn-Lugar program, also known as Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR), was created to secure and reduce vulnerable WMD materials in the former Soviet states.  At a cost of roughly $500 million per year, it has been measurably successful in pursuit of its goals.

Under the Bush Administration, the US began equipping American ports with radiation detection devices designed to detect nuclear materials, such as those that could be used in the detonation of a “dirty bomb.”  In 2009, President Obama announced the creation of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Second Line of Defense Program (SLD).  SLD is a two-part project, including the “Core Program” to equip 650 sites in 30 countries around the world with detection equipment, and the “Megaports Initiative” to equip more than 100 seaports with radiation equipment by 2018.  This includes training for foreign operators, with a goal of enabling the scanning of around 50% of global shipping traffic by 2018.

But how effective is said detection and scanning equipment estimated to be?  The answer is not very.  The innate problem with nuclear material detection is that nuclear weapons aren’t inherently radioactive.  In fact, the sensitivity level required to detect nuclear weapons is so great, that cat litter, ceramic tiles, and people have been known to regularly set off the detection equipment.

Despite this high sensitivity, in 2003, ABC News successfully shipped depleted uranium into the country, right through the radiological detection devices, twice.  Dense materials like lead can also be used to conceal a radiation signature, though they fortunately light up on x-rays like the Las Vegas strip.  It is therefore important to use multiple layers and different types of technology in any detection apparatus.

On the plus side of things, radiation detection equipment has successfully interdicted a shipment of Japanese radioactive tea in France.  In July 2010, a shipment from the UAE was discovered in Genoa Italy containing radioactive Cobalt-60.  It sat around for a year before officials figured out how to safely deal with it.  Today, it is estimated that the United States is scanning 3.8% of cargo at ports of origin, up from 1% in 2001.  This number is frighteningly low, and more emphasis must be placed on enabling foreign ports to detect dangerous materials before they reach their destinations.

So what is it we’re supposed to do?  Terror organizations need only succeed once in 1,000 times to sow fear and chaos in the American psyche, and equally as important, the economy.  An attack on an American port, or any port, would no-doubt cause absolute devastation on a worldwide economy dependent on maritime shipping.  It is clear that the mere possibility of such an attack, either by a rogue nation or non-state actor, dictates that we take precautions.  But those same precautions must be effective without causing significant slowdown to the shipping process, and thus the global economy.

As a course for the present and future, we must continue securing known sources of nuclear material.  We must develop better, cost-effective technology, and better procedures for detection.  We must decrease the motivation and risk of nations or non-state actors deciding to attempt such a feat.  And within the context of developing a shipping container deterrent, we should seriously consider developing a stated policy in response to an attempted or successful nuclear terror attack.


  1. Excellent article and easy to understand explanation. How do I go about getting permission to post part of the article in my upcoming newsletter? Giving proper credit to you the author and link to the site would not be a problem.

Comments are closed.

Stay up to date!

Join our mailing list to receive weekly newsletters and exclusive invites to upcoming events.

You have Successfully Subscribed!