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Ports To Get New Radiation Detectors

By Guest Contributor, Jay Fraser | August 1, 2006

The Department of Homeland Security, under a program called the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal Initiative, recently announced the award of contracts to three companies (Raytheon Company - Integrated Defense Systems, Thermo Electron Corporation, and Canberra Industries, Inc.) to install advanced radiation detector systems in some of our country's ports. The first test installation is slated to be in the Port of Staten Island. These contracts come after months of debate and argument over the issue of this country's previously (and very publicized) limited ability to inspect more than 5% (some say the percentage is actually closer to 1%) of all cargo containers entering the country. The fear is that dangerous contraband such as a radiological dirty bomb or a chemical-biological weapon might enter through the ports undetected.

Perhaps no one ever thought about this before September 11th, but today, nearly five years following those attacks, port security remains a topic of debate. If you go to any sea port or inland cargo storage facility, you will likely see hundreds if not thousands of cargo containers stacked one on top of the next, lined up for what might seem like football fields on end. Offshore you may see container ships bringing cargo into the port. Entering New York Harbor through the Verrazano Narrows, you might easily see a Hanjin container ship heavily laden with the huge boxes. What is in them? That is the concern of Homeland Security officials and local security professionals.

According to an article appearing in Fleet Owner, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects these new radiological detectors to improve the level of inspection up to 90% of all containers by the end of the year, and to nearly 100% by next year. Additionally, the plan is to deploy these detectors at the entry points to major cities to inspect commercial vehicles, regardless of whether the cargo originated domestically or internationally. One of the questions this raises is whether the number of inspected containers can jump from less than 5% to over 90% simply by upgrading the equipment.

The new detection portals will replace the more than 840 radiation detection devices at borders, seaports, and international mail centers purchased by the U.S. since September 11th at a cost of $340 million. Unfortunately, these radiological detectors set off an alarm without identifying the exact isotopic source of the radiation and therefore have been plagued by high levels of false positives (even kitty litter set these devices off), causing major delays and disruptions at ports. Each of these new radiological detectors will cost about $500,000, approximately the price of seven of the old detection machines. DHS plans call for purchasing 1,400 of the new machines by 2011.

In a recent article by the Associated Press, GAO assistant director Jim Shafer noted that "the Governmental Accountability Office continues to analyze a Homeland Security cost-benefits plan justifying the expense."

While the new scanners may cut down on false positive rates, "these things are marginal gains" against "extremely high costs," Shafer said in an interview Friday.

Penrose Albright, who led Homeland Security's border nuclear detection program before leaving the agency a year ago, said the new scanners will "dramatically complicate the lives of people who want to smuggle materials."

But Albright noted that the detectors still won't be alerted to uranium or plutonium shielded by thick cases of lead. And installing them above speeding traffic on highways or bridges - as Homeland Security is considering in metropolitan New York - raises questions about how vehicles would then be stopped, he said.

Is it worth the billions of dollars for these new and improved radiation detectors? Yes, for two reasons: 1) there is enough unaccounted for radiological material, especially from the old Soviet Union, to produce a dirty bomb; and 2) while most if not all cargo containers originating overseas are inspected and sealed, there is a possibility that in transit a container could be opened, and a weapon introduced. Perhaps the likelihood of this happening is low. Is it worth taking the risk? Probably not, but clearly, others see this program as problematic.

For more details on the DHS program: Specifications of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) in this January 2005 DHS-ARPA report; see also the Web sites of Canberra Regional and Canberra - Homeland Security; Thermo Electron Corporation; and Raytheon.

Jay Fraser is a business executive and entrepreneur with a background in strategic planning, new business development, marketing and technology transfer and commercialization. He is a founder and President of a high-technology company involved in brand protection, product identification and document security.