ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The Bush administration wants to install new radiation detectors at the nation's ports and land crossings. That's because the old monitors can't tell the difference between a weapon of mass destruction and radiation that occurs naturally in such things as kitty liter. Well even so, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, some people are questioning whether the new gear is really worth the $1.2 billion price tag.
PAM FESSLER: The current radiation detectors used on cargo containers entering by land or sea are very sensitive, almost too sensitive. Vayl Oxford of the Homeland Security Department says they trigger many nuisance alarms.
Mr. VAYL OXFORD (Director of Nuclear Detection Office, Homeland Security Department): Cat litter, ceramics, bananas, all those kinds of things have a natural radiation that goes with them.
FESSLER: And that means customs officers spend a lot of time at ports since inspecting containers that pose no threat at all.
Mr. OXFORD: LA/Long Beach right now is getting 400 to 500 alarms a day.
FESSLER: Not good for a just-in-time economy where any delays can be costly. So the Homeland Security Department is testing new detectors which supposedly can distinguish between good radiation and bad.
(Soundbite of truck engine)
FESSLER: Some of those tests are taking place at the New York Container Terminal, located in the shadow of the Goethals Bridge, which connects Staten Island and New Jersey. From this port, a steady stream of trucks carries merchandise shipped from around the world to destinations across the country.
(Soundbite of truck engine)
FESSLER: But no truck can leave the port without first being scanned for radiation. Each driver must roll slowly past a row of 15-foot-high yellow pillars; some contain equipment to detect the radiation level. Oxford says new ones also analyze isotopes to determine what's inside the container and whether it's dangerous.
Mr. OXFORD: Any alarm, then the truck will be sent over the secondary inspection.
FESSLER: He points to another set of monitors nearby, where a truck undergoes the more thorough exam. A Customs officer slowly scans the container with a hand-held device, trying to identify a substance planted inside the truck as part of this test.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)...
Unidentified Woman: Okay.
Unidentified Man: ...at 133, which is a surrogate for plutonium.
FESSLER: A substance the government is very interested in stopping at the border. But how well does the new system work? Oxford won't say, only that he's very pleased so far. Congress is watching the test closely. Last year, lawmakers decided to hold up funding for the program until they're convinced it will work.
Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin heads a Homeland Security panel overseeing the project.
Representative JIM LANGEVIN (Democrat, Rhode Island): It's important that we get the radiation detection equipment in the field as soon as possible, but we also want to make sure at the same time that the taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck and a fair deal.
FESSLER: He's optimistic. But the Government Accountability Office reports that in earlier tests the new scanners directly identified highly enriched uranium only half the time, or even less. Oxford insists that improvements had been made since, but critics say a big problem is that the new machine still can't detect radioactive material that's been heavily shielded.
Mr. RANDALL LARSEN (Director, Non-partisan Institute for Homeland Security): I think if a terrorist is smart enough to get their hands on a nuclear weapon, they're probably going to be smart enough to put an eighth or a quarter inch of lead around it so these detectors won't work.
FESSLER: Randall Larsen is director of the Non-partisan Institute for Homeland Security. He also wonders why the government wants to spend so much on equipment to detect radiation at ports when there are lots of ways to smuggle dangerous materials into the country.
Mr. LARSEN: You know, we have 95,000 miles of unguarded shoreline. That's the way the drug runners bring in most of their things. If you want to bring a nuclear weapon in the United States, you'd probably just go out and charter a Gulfstream V and fly it non stop from virtually anywhere in the world here in the United States.
Mr. MICHAEL LEVI (Council on Foreign Relations): Every piece of the defense will always have holes.
FESSLER: Michael Levi is with the Council on Foreign Relations. He agrees with Larsen that the government's main focus should be on keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists in the first place. But Levi thinks better detection equipment is a good investment even if it might not stop everything someone tries to smuggle in.
Mr. LEVI: The goal should be to the deter terrorist groups, to convince them that this is not worthwhile. And you don't need a perfect defense to convince a group that's very afraid of failure that their plot is not worthwhile.
FESSLER: He says what's important is a layered defense sort of a like a pile of Swiss Cheese: No layer is perfect, but hopefully none of the holes goes all the way through.
But Levi does worry the Homeland Security is too focused on the technology, and Edward Bell agrees. He's with Customs and Border Protection in San Diego and is a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees. Bell says, if he and his colleagues do detect nuclear materials in a cargo container, they're not prepared to respond.
Mr. EDWARD BELL (Bureau of Customs and Border Protection): I still don't have radios that allow me to talk to my fellow officers, or to any firemen or policeman. So should I find something and call, like, you know, for back up, there is no way for me to do that.
FESSLER: Homeland Security officials deny that's the case. They say workers are adequately trained and equipped. The administration will try later this year to make its case to go into full production of the new radiation detectors. The question is what, if any, alarms the latest test results will raise on Capitol Hill.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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