Purdue News

February 9, 2005

National terrorism, technology experts to speak at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – National government and industry experts, including former nuclear weapons inspector David Kay, will speak during a panel discussion on Feb. 24 at Purdue University about new technologies needed to protect America from terrorist attacks.

"Homeland Security: Engineering a Safer Tomorrow" will begin at 7 p.m. in the Purdue Memorial Union's South Ballroom. The university's College of Engineering organized the panel discussion as part of National Engineers Week, Feb. 20-26.

John Sununu, former White House chief of staff, will moderate the panel. Other panel members will be Kay; Sandy Berger, former national security adviser; Robert Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines; Reed Hundt, a technology expert and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; and cyber-terrorism expert Jonathan Zittrain.

The panel discussion kicks off a new TechChallenges Lecture Series.

"This new series – a forum for policy-making at the local, state and federal levels – examines leading-edge technology in the context of challenging issues faced by our communities, our nation and our world," said Linda P.B. Katehi, the John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering at Purdue.

Kay is a former chief nuclear weapons inspector sent to Iraq by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations special commission overseeing the destruction of Iraqi weapons after the 1991 Gulf War. He later served as head of the Iraq Survey Group searching for weapons of mass destruction after the Iraq war in 2003.

Kay said protecting the United States from terrorists who could use weapons of mass destruction will be a daunting challenge, especially because of the huge numbers of people and cargo containers of goods flowing daily across the nation's borders.

"Today is different than the past because of the ease with which individuals and groups can acquire weapons capabilities that formerly were available only to large states," Kay said.

A lone biochemist with the proper skills could develop devastatingly effective chemical weapons in makeshift basement laboratories. Some of the most serious threats posed by individuals are the potential uses of chemical and biological materials, as well as nuclear wastes in so-called dirty bombs, which would disperse radioactive debris within populated areas, Kay said.

"You have to be concerned about the possibility of terrorist attacks in the United States, especially when you think about the resources and materials available to organized groups," he said.

While unlikely, it is remotely possible that terrorist groups might even be able to purchase conventional nuclear weapons through black markets in other countries and then transport the weapons to U.S. soil.

"And, simply put, we are not prepared to deal with this problem," Kay said. "The biggest challenge is how to guarantee yourself some degree of safety against the use of such weapons, while at the same time not destroying your economy or your society by restrictions that make it so onerous that no one can move around or trade with you, or that students abroad can't go to your universities.

"Just think of the sheer volume of shipping containers that come across our borders. They move from a shipping port onto a train and trucks that transport them across the country. They are in any one place for perhaps only a matter of minutes. If you slow down this traffic too much, you can have huge economic impact because we run on almost zero inventory in this country now."

Emerging sensor technologies offer hope in protecting Americans from threats by detecting weapons before they reach population centers.

"There are tremendous new technical possibilities out there, but we currently lack the tools to prevent terrorists from smuggling weapons of mass destruction into the U.S. and to ensure that rogue states are not gaining these weapons capabilities," Kay said. "One reason for this lack of preparation is that our government does not usually act in the sort of unified fashion that it would take to effectively develop and install such tools.

"It will really need to involve a combination of private companies, universities, national labs and Pentagon assets, all operating toward a common end, and we don't usually play well together. We need to stop kidding ourselves that countermeasures can be gained on the cheap."

The panel discussion will follow presentations on homeland security on Tuesday (Feb. 22), when about 10 Purdue faculty members will talk about research issues ranging from protecting the nation's power grid to food safety, new types of sensors to tracing documents and counterfeit bills. The presentations, part of the Homeland Security Technical Showcase, will begin at 1:30 p.m. in Purdue's Fowler Hall and also are part of Engineers Week.

Purdue's College of Engineering is made up of 14 academic programs: aeronautics and astronautics, agricultural and biological, biomedical, chemical, civil, construction engineering and management, electrical and computer, engineering education, first-year engineering, industrial, interdisciplinary, materials, mechanical, and nuclear. More than 6,400 undergraduate students and nearly 2,500 graduate students are enrolled in Purdue engineering programs. In its most recent rankings, U.S.News and World Report magazine named Purdue the No. 8 undergraduate and graduate engineering program in the country, and many of Purdue's programs were ranked in the top 10 nationally.

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709, venere@purdue.edu

Source: Linda P.B. Katehi, (765) 494-5346, katehi@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Note to Journalists: The six panel members are available for advance interviews by contacting Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709, venere@purdue.edu, or Portia Hickson at the Washington Speakers Bureau, (703) 684-0555, PortiaH@washingtonspeakers.com. Publication-quality photographs and biographical information on the panelists are available online.


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