One morning last year, New Yorker writer Steve Coll heard an alarm sound in " a sensor outpost at the Port of Newark...as trucks rumbled through a line of radiation portals, which are shaped like metallic archways... a Gamma alert, lane six.
This happens more than two hundred times per day at the Port of New York and New Jersey... officers checked the driver's papers, scanned the truck's sides with a handheld isotope identifier, consulted their computer screens , and within minutes announced their conclusion: denture cleaners , potassium-40. They spoke in the bored, slightly sardonic tone common among police officers , as if they were reviewing a burglar's jimmying techniques. "
Two hundred false alarms a day mounts into a national security nightmare when multiplied by the hundreds of points and ports of entry on America's land and maritime frontiers. The problem is compounded by there being about as many natural , and mostly harmless, radioisotopes as there are ones of practical interest to dirty bomb makers , or of use in constructing a rogue atomic bomb.
The causes of alarms sounded by detectors set up to screen venues of the sort customarily attacked in Techno-thrillers , like the Capitol , political conventions , or the Superbowl , have thus far included a Secretary of the Interior freshly radioactive from a diagnostic doctor's visit and the un-enriched uranium content of a century-old granite pedestal supporting a bust of Daniel Webster.
Ninety per cent of containers entering the US are already screened by an ever growing spectrum of radiation detectors, whose sensitivity rises as DHS invests in new technology. But unless and until their discrimination grows faster than the rate of false positives , we face a clear and present danger of paralysis. The problem arose when some in government responded to 9-11 by deciding that a 1% threat demands the same draconian response as a 1% suspicion of a foreign nation's nuclear ambition.But nations are few and cargoes are many- they failed to reckon on sensitivity outrunning the ability to tell the feeble glow of a bomb in a dull leaden casing from the screaming signal of a truckload of potassium -40 rich bananas or the trans-uranic radioactivity of one of the nation's millions of americium-laced smoke detectors.
There are some pretty dim bulbs among those who find terror attractive. Less intelligent still is the notion that practitioners of nuclear malevolence will turn out to be numbskulls incapable of reading--and understanding--the ( limited ) performance specifications of radiation detectors new and old. Unless shrewdly directed , DHS's firehosing of funds into all the detectors money can buy may give rise instead to a Chinese fire drill affording cover for real arsonists, as well as comfort for the producers of 24. In the current issue of the NAS journal Issues in Science And Technology William Johnstone observes :
'Reportedly, only 5% of all air cargo is currently screened, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has indicated that aircraft carrying cargo continue to be highly vulnerable to terrorist sabotage. TSA has proposed a set of regulations for air cargo security, but as is typical for rulemaking, the process is moving very slowly. Even if finalized, the new rules would provide few details on how the freight industry, which is expected to implement the security program, is to fulfill this unfunded mandate.'