New detectors aim to prevent nuclear terror
(The following article by Eric Lipton was posted on the New York Times website on February 8.)
WASHINGTON -- New York City is about to become a laboratory to test ways of strengthening the nation’s defenses against a terror attack by a nuclear device or a radioactive “dirty bomb.”
Starting this spring, the Bush administration will assess new detection machines at a Staten Island port terminal that are designed to screen cargo and automatically distinguish between naturally occurring radiation and critical bomb-building ingredients.
And later this year, the federal government plans to begin setting up an elaborate network of radiation alarms at some bridges, tunnels, roadways and waterways into New York, creating a 50-mile circle around the city.
The effort, which could be expanded to other cities if proven successful, is a major shift of focus for the Department of Homeland Security. As it finishes installing the first generation of radiation scanners at the nation’s ports and land border crossings, the department is trying to find ways to stop a plot that would use a weapon built within the United States.
“How do you create deterrence against terrorism?” said Vayl S. Oxford, director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, the Homeland Security agency coordinating the work. “You complicate the ability for the terrorist to do what they want.”
But even as the new campaign begins, some members of Congress and antiterrorism experts are raising concerns that the initiative, like previous Homeland Security programs, could prove extraordinarily costly and provide few security gains.
“This is just total baloney,” said Tara O’Toole, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration, where she oversaw nuclear weapons safety efforts. “They are forgetting that no matter what type of engineering solution they try in good faith to come up with, this is a thinking enemy and they will look for a way around it.”
While Homeland Security officials repeatedly declined to estimate the costs of a nationwide detection system, agency documents show they might spend more than a billion dollars on the cargo-screening equipment alone.
Local officials in New York are sparring with Homeland Security over a plan to immediately transfer to local and state authorities the burden of maintaining and operating the network of detection machines when it is completed within several years.
“We are concerned they will put money forward for a piece of hardware and then move to another project,” said Raymond W. Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner. He added that while the city supports the plan, he is not convinced that the proposed detection network makes sense. “Whether or not it works, whether or not it causes too many false alarms, which causes a whole other set of problems, all of these things are still to be determined,” he said.
Mr. Oxford said he is aware of the concerns about costs, which is still the subject of negotiations, and the performance of the new detection machines. But with a threat like a nuclear attack, the country cannot afford to wait until all the details are worked out, he said.
“Our philosophy is not to wait for perfection, because perfection never comes,” he said.
The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, among the newest agencies at Homeland Security, was established in April 2005, in response to criticism that efforts to combat nuclear terrorism were too disorganized.
The office focuses on blocking two types of plots: a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. A nuclear attack by terrorists is considered unlikely, because of the difficulty of obtaining the required radioactive materials, such as highly enriched uranium.
The detonation of a dirty bomb is considered much more feasible. It only requires dynamite or another conventional explosive to detonate a widely available radioactive source — like the cesium or cobalt in certain medical devices. The blast might cause injuries or deaths, but the radioactive residue would cover a two- to three-block area and not pose an immediate health threat. Possible panic and economic disruption could be among the most serious consequences, experts say.
The Securing the Cities detection network, as the New York experiment is called, is intended to stop a nuclear or radiological threat as far away from a city as possible. “Detecting it in the core of Manhattan is too late,” Mr. Oxford said.
The network would most likely include truck inspection stations along highways approaching New York, which would be equipped with radiation detection devices, agency budget documents say. Devices might also be installed at highway tollbooths and at spots where rail, boat and subway traffic could be monitored.
The detection equipment, some of which would be mobile, would be electronically connected and monitored so if a suspicious vehicle passed one spot without being stopped, it might be intercepted after passing another detector.
Some New York agencies already have a limited supply of radiation detection equipment, but the new system would be much more extensive and go much further outside the city.
Mr. Kelly said that the city would, at least initially, use any new detection equipment to screen vehicles heading into Lower Manhattan. The project would complement a city program to install cameras, license plate readers and devices that can block vehicle traffic, creating a “ring of steel” around the financial district.
The actual design of the Homeland Security system and the protocols for how responses to alarms will be handled, are still being negotiated by federal officials and authorities in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York state.
Benn H. Tannenbaum, a physicist and nuclear terrorism expert at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, said the system would never create anything close to an impenetrable barrier, particularly for a nuclear bomb, since the required ingredients have low levels of radioactivity and can easily be shielded. But the project still might be worthwhile, he said. “If nothing else, it makes the terrorist think twice before they do something like this,” he said.
Ms. O’Toole, the former Department of Energy official, pointed to Homeland Security’s BioWatch program, set up in about 30 cities in 2003 to monitor the air for a possible biological attack.
The equipment was installed quickly, but there was no detailed plan in place for how to respond to positive alarms, which meant three weeks of confusion among Houston authorities in October 2003, after tularemia, a naturally occurring pathogen, was discovered. “There is this disconnect between these grand schemes for technology and reality,” Ms. O’Toole said.
Laura S. H. Holgate, vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based research group, said the government should put far more energy into a global effort to prevent nuclear materials from getting into the hands of terrorists.
The testing planned on Staten Island at the New York Container Terminal is intended to police concerns about false alarms.
Three sets of new types of detection machines have been installed there. For the first time, such machines sound an alarm when something radioactive passes through, and simultaneously identify the radioactive isotope. That allows officials to distinguish between innocuous items that can emit low levels of radiation, such as granite or kitty litter, and real threats.
Officials at the Government Accountability Office and some members of Congress are concerned that Homeland Security is moving too quickly to buy the new machines. Initial tests have shown them to be not much more effective than existing machines that are a fraction of the cost.
“We know this system is going to be expensive,” said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “We need to be sure it will perform as promised.”
Friday, February 9, 2007
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