April 17, 2023
IMAGE: Aerial drone photo of a cargo container terminal in Piraeus, Greece. Photo by aerial-drone – stock.adobe.com.
The Second Line of Defense Greek deployment was an adventure in learning by doing. How do we design an installation at each site that does not make the traffic flow too slowly and interfere with commercial demands but still scans all the vehicles for radiological materials? How do we appropriately set the portals, based on the site background radiation, so the operator can see small amounts of material and can still do secondary inspections on a reasonable number of vehicles? How do we reassure people that the equipment poses no danger—it detects, not emits, radiation? How do we convince people to cooperate, recognizing the work was going to be disruptive and make their jobs more complicated? How do we ensure that the equipment is being used correctly after we leave? How do we figure out who needs to approve what, in a country which, unlike Russia, where the program had previously worked, is highly decentralized in authority and control? What is the best approach to training?
The questions, and the challenges, were endless.
In 2003, I joined the US National Nuclear Security Administration’s Second Line of Defense (SLD) program, which helped partner countries detect, disrupt, and investigate the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive material. In the early days of the program, we were working primarily in Russia. Hard to imagine now, but those were times of robust collaboration between the United States—primarily the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Defense—and our Russian counterparts, to secure nuclear and radiological weapons and material at military and civilian sites across Russia. Out of this collaboration, we developed a cooperative effort with Russian Customs to provide fixed portal monitors and handheld detectors at key Russian border crossings, airports, and seaports. All facets of the work were carried out by a Russian company, Aspekt, using Russian equipment and Russian training, and under the direction of the Russian government, with the Russians and the United States each contracting for work at approximately half the sites.
We had been having discussions about the possibility of expanding the SLD program to other countries bordering Russia and to large strategic seaports around the world, but the work in Greece, done in response to the Greek request to provide security for the Olympics, was the first major deployment outside of Russia. I had just recently joined SLD, and the head of our unit asked me to accompany representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Greece. I dropped my daughter at college and headed to the airport, not knowing what to expect. After some negotiations, we agreed to deploy portal monitors at key entry points before the start of the Olympics.
This was an entirely new model for carrying out the work of SLD. Whereas in Russia almost everything was done by Aspekt (with SLD contractual oversight and advice to be sure), in this new model, SLD, working with the DOE laboratories and the direct federal contractors, had to negotiate, design, and implement all the deployments, providing the oversight, equipment, and training for the entire process. And it had to completed on a tight, nonnegotiable deadline, a new experience for us. We began work in fall 2003, and the Olympics were held in mid-August 2004.
We learned early on that our work had to be done with our counterparts. We needed their help, they needed ours. The program had, of course, been conceived to protect the United States: radiological and nuclear material that is out of appropriate regulatory control is a danger to the United States, both as a target and because a significant nuclear and radiological incident anywhere would impact the United States in many ways, large and small. But as we worked with the Greeks, primarily the Greek Atomic Energy Agency and Greek Customs, we began to think of this as a deeply cooperative international effort. I like to believe that this strongly cooperative approach, which characterized the Greek engagement, became embedded in the culture of SLD and then the US Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence, and has been crucial to its success.
We were very lucky to have had extraordinarily skilled and experienced private sector construction managers and engineers on our team, as well as world-class scientists from the DOE laboratories. Nonetheless, we learned the value of really listening to our Greek colleagues. They knew their country, they also had outstanding scientists, they saw things we didn’t. We learned from them, and they learned from us.
Part of cooperation meant we needed to better understand their culture and how to communicate with our counterparts. I was sitting next to the interpreter the first time we met with Greek officials from multiple agencies to discuss the deployment process. Ordinarily, when I would make a statement to the Russians, the interpreter would translate, and then the lead on the other side would respond in Russian, and that would be translated. Not in Greece. In Greece, I would say something, it would be translated, and the room would break out in lively discussion in Greek. “What is happening?” I asked the interpreter. “Oh,” she said, “they are discussing what you said.” She began to translate in my ear, but it was difficult, because there were so many voices, and it was happening so fast. Eventually the room stilled, and the lead responded to me, with people adding and correcting as he spoke. We learned to adapt to the process, it got us to agreement, and I began to enjoy it.
It was also a reminder of the outsized role that interpreters play. We found a good team and tried, as much as possible, to use the same ones throughout the process. They came to understand what we were doing and to master our vocabulary and approach. They were able to explain things to us, clear up confusion and misunderstandings at the sites, and make very helpful suggestions. They were an integral part of our success.
It was both an education and a pleasure to work with the Greeks. One of our earliest collaborators, a wonderful man from the Greek Atomic Energy Commission (EEAE), was extremely proud of being Greek and very knowledgeable about his country’s history. As we began to work together, he would find opportunities to point out how everything was invented by the Greeks or a version of something that the ancient Greeks had said or done. It was delightful, and a kind of team bonding experience: something would happen when we were back in the United States, and we would look at one another and say, “I bet that comes from the Greeks!” As we were trying to determine where to deploy the portals, our EEAE colleagues, eager to show us their country, took the core team on a bus ride from Thessaloniki across northern Greece, stopping to look at several crossing points, pointing out landmarks, and reminding us of the many things that originated in Greece. At one point, we stopped in the small town of Vergina for lunch. One of our EEAE colleagues knew one of the officials of the town, who offered to give us a tour of a relatively new museum that had been recently renovated. Why not, we thought. Well, it was the Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aigai, that had the contents of the tomb and other artifacts of Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great. It was an absolutely world class museum that we had entirely to ourselves, with an extremely knowledgeable tour guide. From our perspective, we were in the middle of nowhere, had just gotten off a bus for lunch on our way somewhere else, and here was Greek history at its most magnificent. We were impressed.
Back to the deployment process: the Athens International Airport was the most difficult site. It had begun operation in 2001 and was spruced up and ready for the Olympics. The management was extremely proud of this airport, worried about what portal deployments would do to the heavy traffic expected through the airport during the Olympics, and unhappy about defacing the beautiful architecture of this new airport with these ugly portal monitors. They resisted for a long time. Finally, the EEAE invited us to a meeting it had succeeded in scheduling with senior airport management in Athens. We had to travel from the United States to Greece on two days’ notice—a challenge for the DOE travel system—but we made it.
Essentially, the official from the EEAE made clear to the airport management—a public-private consortium with the private consortium being foreign investors—that this was a Greek airport. We represented a Greek security project for the Olympics, and the management needed to fall in line. After that meeting, they did. Our team found a deployment design the airport could live with, and we ended up putting what we called “pajamas” on the portals. This was a blue covering the team designed that did not interfere with the functioning of the portals but that matched the airport décor.
These portal pajamas led to another lesson learned. If sites requested a small, easy fix to the site from the construction crew that was not part of the SLD work, we would sometimes do it. We did not want to be wasteful or raise costs unnecessarily, but a bit of goodwill went a long way.
We successfully completed the project. The program carried out border-crossing deployments at Promochonas on the Bulgarian border (this site was later decommissioned when Bulgaria joined the European Union); at Evzoni on the border with North Macedonia; and at Kakavia, on the border with Albania. Deployments were also done at the cargo and passenger terminals of the Piraeus Seaport and, as described above, at the Athens airport. Large numbers of handheld radiation-detection equipment were deployed to remote island border crossing points. Customs and other officials throughout the country were provided extensive training, some in the United States and many more in-country, by US and Greek trainers.
This completion was due to the support of the incredible people with whom we worked: those to whom our team reported in Washington, DC; all the federal staff, laboratory scientists, and private contractors; the US Embassy in Greece; the IAEA; and, of course, all our Greek collaborators.
The work did not stop after the successful Olympics. The Greeks became advocates for this type of deployment. They helped NSDD in its work at the IAEA, and they provided demonstrations and training for countries with whom NSDD subsequently worked. It was—and still is—a rich collaboration, and what a privilege it was to have been part of the effort at its inception.
In the beginning, the questions were endless. By the end, we had (at least some) answers.
Many of the approaches, processes, and procedures we developed in Greece were codified as SLD’s rules of engagement: the order in which things were done, where monitors should be located, how we approached training, etc. Later in my career when people would come to me with problems and I would make suggestions, several times they responded, “But that’s not the process,” or, “We are not allowed to do it that way!” And I would say, “This approach is not handed down from on high. I remember when we invented it in Greece!” In other words, if a country required a different approach to training, or if we had to adapt our monitor settings or placement, then let’s investigate a new approach. And we did.
Being a part of this foundational deployment was thus a vivid lesson in how early success creates a process for more success, but these processes can become reified and blind you to other options. Long-term programmatic success certainly requires procedures and processes, but also flexibility and adaptability. One of the pleasures and rewards of my experience with SLD/NSDD was watching the program grow, adapt, and change to meet the challenges of new partners, new political environments, and new technology. It is a very different program now than when we worked in Greece. But one thing I believe has endured is the program’s deep commitment to respecting and collaborating with our partners.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.
Elly Melamed retired in June 2020 from the position of Associate Assistant Deputy Administrator for the Office of Global Material Security (GMS) in the National Nuclear Security Administration. GMS works with partner countries to prevent terrorist acquisition of nuclear and radiological materials by building sustainable capacity to secure nuclear and radiological materials and to interdict and investigate the trafficking of weapons and materials.
Ms. Melamed joined the Department of Energy in 1994, where she worked for the DOE Office Environment, Safety and Health on projects in the US and Russia related to radiation exposure. She moved to the National Nuclear Security Administration Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation in 2000, where she has worked on a variety of nuclear nonproliferation issues. Beginning in July 2003, Ms. Melamed worked in the Office of the Second Line of Defense, recently renamed Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (NSDD). This program deploys fixed, mobile and hand-held radiation detection systems worldwide, along with associated training and sustainability support. She was instrumental in promoting the growth of NSDD from a start-up program with a small Federal staff, and one foreign partner, to a program of recognized effectiveness and global reach.
Ms. Melamed holds a Bachelor of Arts from Oberlin College, and a Master of Arts in European History from the University of Chicago. She is married, with two grown children, and lives in Arlington, Virginia.