Experts highlight nuke-detection flaws

Smuggling and detonation of nuclear or radiological devices in the United States remains a serious concern, scientists and other experts say.

They called for more money, research and development, training, advanced technology, government coordination, and a better overall strategy for prevention efforts.

Members from two subcommittees of the House Homeland Security Committee held a joint hearing on the effectiveness of radiation portal monitors and other technologies used to detect material. Such technologies could prevent smugglers from importing radioactive material on vehicles, trains, ships, airplanes or even by walking across unprotected points along the borders.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology Subcommittee, said many unresolved matters regarding the issue still exist. For example, officials must work out the timeframe for developing advanced technology, federal agencies' coordination of detection programs, elimination of possible waste and duplication in those programs, and the helpfulness of a newly proposed Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.

The subcommittee held the joint hearing with members from the Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attack Subcommittee.

Richard Wagner, a senior staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that even though no defense against nuclear and biological weapons will be perfect, it's important to build a system for deterrence.

"That means creating an uncertainty in the mind of the attackers," said Wagner, who also chaired the Defense Science Board Task Force on Preventing and Defending Against Clandestine Nuclear Attack, which produced a report last year for the Pentagon.

Wagner also said Congress and the Bush administration must realize that there will be false starts and wasted money over the course of this effort. Most important, the administration needs to find and leave good people in place who can build trust, he said. He also advised Congress to find the right degree and balance of oversight.

From fiscal 1994 through 2005, Congress has appropriated about $800 million toward radiation-detection equipment and training, including $500 million to the Energy, Defense and State departments for international efforts and $300 million to the Homeland Security Department for installing equipment at certain points of entry, according to the Government Accountability Office. In May 2005, DHS reported that it had installed more than 470 radiation portal monitors nationwide.

Gene Aloise, GAO's national resources and environment director, said federal agencies now do a better job of coordinating their efforts related to detection equipment. But it still remains a concern, possibly signaling a need for a broader strategy, he said. For example, the State Department installed radiation-detection monitors in more than 20 countries, but they are less sophisticated than those installed by the Defense and Energy departments, he said.

He said another problem facing agencies and others is whether to deploy available detectors or wait for better technology. Current equipment has limitations, but at least it provides some ability to catch radioactive material, Aloise said. "Without it you have very little chance," he said.

A greater problem may be how Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency employees use the devices. For example, Aloise said, some CBP agents have improperly used small handheld detectors, known as radiation pagers, to search trucks instead of using isotope detectors. Pagers alone are limited in effectiveness, but work best when used within a suite of available equipment, he said.

Bethann Rooney, security manager for the Port of New York and New Jersey, said 22 radiation portal monitors have been deployed and another 10 will be installed later this year. One problem of the detectors is false alarms, averaging about 150 per day, or about 1 in 40 containers.

Once an alarm is set off, CBP officials follow strict protocols to determine whether the threat is terrorist related, naturally occurring or a legitimate medical source of radiation. “In the vast majority of the cases, CBP is able to resolve the alarm in approximately 10 minutes or less and release the truck without causing any undue delays to the flow of commerce,” she said.

But Rooney pointed out that officials don’t screen 55 percent of the port’s total cargo that passes through the port, which is the third largest in the country. That includes all cargo traveling by rail or barge. Screening such intermodal cargo could be disruptive to the flow of commerce, she said.

Rooney suggested the scientific community needs to work with the private sector and maritime security to develop technology to ensure security without hindering the flow of goods.

The technology itself needs to be improved, lawmakers and experts say. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) said some monitors “cannot distinguish between nuclear bombs and radiation that occurs naturally in items such as a ceramic pile and cat litter.”

Benn Tannenbaum, a physicist and senior program associate with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said technologies and procedures must improve to produce better results. Such improvements include decreasing the distance between the detector and sample, increasing sampling time and increasing the shielding around a detector to reduce any naturally occurring radiation. He also said algorithms in second-generation monitors can be improved.

He added that the best defense is a layered defense, including monitoring existing supplies of highly enriched uranium and plutonium worldwide.

But King said that despite all the precautions, terrorists can still detonate a bomb at a port even after it has been detected. He said it would make better sense to screen cargo at sea before it arrives at a port.

"I think that is a crucially important theme to pursue," Wagner said in agreement.

House members also heard testimony from officials from the Homeland Security, Defense and Energy departments on the issue later in the afternoon.


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