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Ports to Get Radiation Detectors

The first monitors -- big enough a truck can drive through -- will be installed by month's end, Homeland Security secretary announces.

June 04, 2005|Greg Krikorian and Jean Pasco | Times Staff Writers

Declaring a nuclear or radiological attack one of the greatest terrorism threats facing the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Friday that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would soon be equipped with large radiation detection portals to screen all international containers entering the nation's busiest port complex.

Wrapping up a two-day visit to Los Angeles and a swing through Irvine, Chertoff said the radiation monitors would begin operating at three terminals within the Port of Los Angeles by the end of the month. Ninety of the towering detection devices would be in place at the Los Angeles/Long Beach complex by the end of the year, he said.

Just weeks ago, the Port of Oakland became the first in the nation to be outfitted with the radiation monitors, which are large enough for container trucks to drive through.

"We all know that one of the greatest threats we face in this country is the possibility of a nuclear or radiological attack, which would be devastating in its consequences," Chertoff said in San Pedro. "Obviously, one of our top priorities at the Department of Homeland Security is to prevent that kind of attack. And a key element of that strategy is detection. We have to know that something is coming in so we can intercept it."

Earlier Friday, Chertoff praised Orange County's cities for sharing nearly $70 million in grants since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"You've got quite a spirit of partnership," he said after meeting with police and firefighters at the Orange County Fire Authority headquarters.

Some areas of Orange County have been criticized over how they have used their portion of the $20 billion that was disbursed nationally in homeland security grants, or for accepting money when they had few identifiable terrorist targets.

Chertoff and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, have urged Congress to apportion the money by risk and the impact of an attack, not by population formulas alone. A Cox-sponsored bill to do so passed the House, while a companion measure is being debated in the Senate.

In the most recent allocation, Anaheim and Santa Ana received a total of $25 million, but agreed to spread the money among 12,000 "first responders" countywide, said Sheriff Michael S. Carona.

A law enforcement committee has earmarked the county's money for hazardous-materials suits, command vehicles and other equipment.

"First responders are the first in line when dealing with terrorists," Cox said. "We needed a more rational basis for spending the money than Washington [dictated], to better meet our needs."

California is toward the bottom when it comes to per-capita homeland security funding, with only six other states getting less money per resident. Orange County ranks 17th among the state's 58 counties in per-capita funding.

Security officials have begun using computer models to determine the riskiest targets and which would suffer the greatest loss of life and infrastructure to help pinpoint areas where more preparedness money should be spent, Chertoff said.

The radiation detection portals, Chertoff said later at San Pedro, would enable authorities to screen vehicles and containers entering the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle more than 40% of the 9 million containers shipped into the U.S. each year.

Increasingly, national security experts have said the nation must do more to safeguard ports and inspect cargo shipments before they reach U.S. waters.

"This is a major, major problem for the nation," Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp., told an international conference at the think tank's Santa Monica headquarters Thursday.

A recent Government Accountability Office audit found significant shortcomings in cargo security procedures put in place after the terrorist attacks.

One homeland security program launched to inspect all U.S.-bound cargo at foreign ports had managed to cover only 65% of the shipments because the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has not had enough staff at some overseas ports, the audit found.

Foreign governments asked to help in cargo inspections under another U.S. initiative failed to screen 28% of the containers forwarded to them, the GAO concluded.

The government audit also found significant problems with a program launched in November 2001 to prescreen shipping companies to expedite the flow of goods they carry into U.S. ports. Although the U.S. government hoped to complete security checks of all of the eligible shippers, terminal operators and other companies by last fall, the audit found that nearly 90% of them had not undergone the screening envisioned by homeland security officials.

Chertoff said he was "disturbed" that the programs were falling short of expectations.*

Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.

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