By Mark Clayton, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
If a terrorist tried to sneak a "dirty" bomb into the United States,
would anyone notice?
Possibly. Radiation detectors rushed into service since 9/11 might
sound the alarm at seaports, border checkpoints, and mail-handling
Then again, the sensors have been set off by everything from loads of
kitty litter to bananas. And a smart terrorist could hide a
basketball-size chunk of highly enriched uranium by using lead
shielding less than an inch thick.
That's why the US is set to begin deploying a new generation of
radiation detectors intended to be America's "last line of defense"
against weapons of mass destruction. By early spring, the Department
of Homeland Security (DHS) will pick technologies from among 10
companies, whose newest generation of nuclear detectors was tested in
the Nevada desert this summer. Their devices will begin field-testing
at a few ports of entry by next June, with a full-production decision
expected by 2007.
Some experts are breathing a sigh of relief. "We're now on the cusp of
seeing the next generation of [nuclear and radiological] detectors,"
says Benn Tannenbaum, a physicist and expert on sensor technology at
the Center for Science, Technology & Security Policy at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
But others say the US is not moving fast enough to install a
multilayered defense against one of its biggest security
threats. While billions of dollars have been spent on biological
countermeasures, nuclear detection efforts have lagged.
"Little steps are being taken that may be in the right direction,"
says Richard Wagner Jr., a senior staffer at Los Alamos National
Laboratory, who served in the Pentagon during the Reagan
administration. "It's the rate of progress I'm concerned about."
Alarming evidence that the pace may be picking up as disturbing
About a year ago, the National Intelligence Council warned that
"undetected smuggling has occurred, and we are concerned about the
total amount of [nuclear and radiological] material that could have
been diverted or stolen in the past 13 years" around the world.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has documented
650 cases of trafficking since 1993, echoed that report.
About $300 million has been spent by the Department of Homeland
Security since 1994 to deploy 470 radiation-detection systems at
America's border crossings and ports, according to a Government
Accountability Office report in June.
But their shortcomings have become obvious.
In March, DHS officials told Congress port detectors were working and
had registered at least 10,000 radiation hits.
But questions about the value of those hits arose in a June
congressional hearing, when the security manager for the Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey reported 150 "false positives"
That amounted to a false alarm -- and possibly a time-consuming search
-- for about 1 in every 40 shipping containers. The resulting delays,
in turn, often caused detection sensitivity to be turned down,
crippling a sensor's ability to detect weapons material, the Port
Authority security manager and other experts say.
Next-generation sensors will generally be far smaller, often mobile, and
smarter -- networked with other sensors and able to detect the difference
between radiation emitted from a nuclear bomb and a load of bananas.
New homeland security officeOverseeing the effort is a brand new
office within the Department of Homeland Security devoted to one goal:
detecting terrorist nuclear material before it can get into the
Established by presidential directive in April, its first assignment
is to create a network of US nuclear detectors as part of a larger
"global architecture" of detectors to be deployed overseas.
"We anticipate mobile detection systems and fixed systems ... that
enable us to achieve randomness and screening around the country, in
transit zones, aircraft in flight, and container ships," says Vayle
Oxford, acting director of the new DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection
He envisions detectors that would screen "target areas" like high-risk
cities, and some that could alert security forces to investigate. In
sum, it's a new concept that will need huge databases to collect and
collate data from what could become thousands of WMD sensors on
bridges and buildings.
"What we're trying to do with global architecture is to knit this
together," Dr. Oxford says. DNDO received $318 million in fiscal year
2006 funding -- about $90 million more than President Bush requested
Today only a few truly advanced detection systems are actually
deployed, including one at MassPort in Boston and another at a border
crossing with Mexico near San Diego, Dr. Tannenbaum says.
By 2007, DHS expects to decide on the best technology to put into
2,500 advanced detectors to be rolled out nationwide.
Innovative technologiesOne possible technology, from Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, is RadNet, a kind of global positioning
system married to a radiation detector packed into a cellphone. The
idea is that this "cellphone sniffer" could be carried by police
officers on their daily routes -- all the while detecting radiation
and transmitting coordinates to a computer that maps hot zones for
Another contender: Princeton University's Miniature Integrated
Detection System (MINDS), which can distinguish between types of
radiation using sophisticated software.
So far, MINDS systems are scanning for suspicious material at a major
train station on the East Coast and a military base in New Jersey, as
well as being evaluated for airports and mail facilities.
Scientists at the Livermore lab are working on an even more futuristic
nuclear detector that could sense a bomb made of highly enriched
uranium, which emits little radiation and is easily shielded.
Other countries are coming on board. A year ago, the European Union
and the US agreed to cooperate on development of sensor technology.
Canada last year noted that its Ottawa International Airport would be
getting detectors that would sense material likely to be in a dirty
bomb, a non-nuclear device that uses conventional explosives.
Even local entities are getting involved. Last year several Las Vegas
hotels announced deployment of nuclear and chemical sensors.
MetroRail in the nation's capital has been moving to upgrade its
chemical and biological sensors.
WMD sensors: not sufficient?
Few experts, however -- Oxford included -- believe WMD sensors are
Most agree the primary defensive layer must be locking down and
monitoring with new smart detectors the insecure nuclear materials in
places like the research reactors of the former Soviet Union.
The next layer would be smart sensors at ports overseas to screen
cargo before it is loaded onto a ship bound for the US.
Some critics, though, say the bulk of funds should be spent securing
loose nuclear material overseas and creating sensor networks to make
sure that it doesn't end up in the wrong hands. If it did, the
argument goes, all the sensors in the world might not be enough.
"This could become a Maginot line for us, creating a false sense of
security," says Randall Larsen, CEO of Homeland Security Associates,
an Arlington, Va., consulting firm. "Anyone smart enough to get this
stuff could sneak it past detectors."
Still, other experts say sensor networks abroad combined with a last
line of defense in the US are critical.
"If you have a better defensive system, the attacker has to work that
much harder, recruit more people, put on more shielding," says
Mr. Wagner. "The bigger the operation gets, the better chance our
people have of detecting and stopping it."
Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor
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