The nation's defense against nuclear terrorism took a major step Friday, federal officials said, following the award of contracts worth $1.2 billion to install advanced sensors at U.S. ports of entry to screen for radioactive cargo.
The Department of Homeland Security plans to install 1,400 advanced detection systems at 370 border crossings and ports under the program, which has been in development at federal laboratories for several years.
The sensors, which cost $350,000 to $600,000 each, will allow inspectors to scan rail cars, trucks and shipping containers with greater accuracy and fewer false alarms, said Vayl S. Oxford, director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, part of the Homeland Security Department.
Sensors now in use are highly sensitive, but since 2002, inspectors have recorded 318,000 false alarms in the 80 million cargo shipments examined, Oxford said. Inspectors have never uncovered an attempt to smuggle nuclear weapons or nuclear materials.
Every time existing sensors signal the presence of radioactive materials, inspectors must send containers to a secondary station, requiring a lengthy and costly inspection. With only so much capacity to conduct them, inspectors often turn down the sensitivity setting on the sensors to avoid disrupting cargo operations.
The new sensors will use advanced software to discriminate between different types of radioactive materials at very high sensitivity levels, Oxford said. For example, they would be able to distinguish weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium from common substances that emit radioactivity, such as granite countertops, bananas and even kitty litter.
At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, none of the cargo entering the nation's ports was screened for radioactive materials. Today, about 80% of incoming containers are screened and the department expects to screen for about 90% by next year, Oxford said.
In recent months, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles began screening all trucks, rail cars and containers, according to Todd Hoffman, a Customs and Border Protection official who will take over responsibility for the ports this fall.
The ports, the nation's largest container complex, are regarded as one of the nation's most difficult places to protect against attempts to smuggle in a nuclear weapon.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has created a technology development program, including efforts to improve nuclear defenses. Research into radiation sensors has grown from $95 million in the last budget year to $180 million this year and is expected to reach $360 million next year.
The bulk of federal research money has focused on biological terrorism. The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office was created 15 months ago, a recognition that not enough emphasis was being placed on stopping a dirty bomb or nuclear weapon from entering the U.S.
The contract award Friday is a culmination of this effort.
"This is a huge step," said Penrose "Parney" Albright, a technology consultant in Washington and former technology chief at the Homeland Security Department. "This dramatically improves our ability to scan vehicles and containers crossing our border."
Federal officials acknowledge their system is not leak-proof. With enough lead and advanced plastic shielding, radioactivity can be blocked from sensors that passively try to detect radiation.
Finding hidden or buried contraband requires active sensors, which attempt to create images of cargo inside the containers, much like an X-ray machine used to inspect baggage at airports.
At most ports, the Customs and Border Protection uses gamma ray detection systems that create images of contents inside containers -- but only on a tiny percentage of targeted containers and vehicles.
The nuclear detection office is funding research that would go further, scanning for shielding materials and alerting border inspectors that nuclear contraband could be hidden.
The federal response also has included establishing multiple layers of defense that extend from foreign ports to potential U.S. targets, Oxford said.
That includes greater scrutiny of shipments before they leave foreign ports and detection systems that would protect American cities with sensors along highways.
The new sensors will be developed and produced by Raytheon Co.'s Integrated Defense Systems, Thermo Electron Corp. and Canberra Industries Inc.
All three companies will conduct research and produce the equipment in the U.S., Oxford said.
The first 80 units will go to the container terminal in the Port of New York and New Jersey for evaluation later this year, and other units will go to the Nevada Test Site for testing.
The department has not decided which U.S. ports will be the first to receive operational units. The program is not scheduled to be completed until 2011.