Tuesday, April 24, 2007

More on Radiation Detection

An update on last week's post on radiation detectors.

GovExec reports that the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) wants to go ahead with deployment of next-generation Advanced Spectroscopic Portals (ASPs). The tests aren't complete, but DNDO feels like it has enough information to go forward:

Heartened by recent test results in Nevada, the director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office said he expects to recommend next-generation nuclear detectors be cleared for deployment in July.

The detection office, a division within the Homeland Security Department, is about halfway through a test run of new radiation detection technology at the New York Container Terminal in Staten Island. The detectors have already undergone testing at the Energy Department's Nevada Test Site.

While DNDO Director Vayl Oxford declined to describe the results of the February and March tests in any detail, he characterized the results as positive. "We are very optimistic that when we go to [Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff] this summer he will give us permission to go to production," Oxford said.

A GAO report said Oxford's office should systematically compile test data on the existing monitors to fully understand their benefits and limitations before making the multibillion dollar investment the deployment plan requires.

Regarding the recommendation to compile testing data, Oxford said, "That's a prudent thing to do."
For the record, it's a $1.2 billion project. And the "prudent" comment is a bit odd. As I read it, Oxford is saying it's prudent to compile testing data before making the deployment decision - but he's planning to deploy without doing so anyway?
He added, however, that "some of that test data we've already looked at, and I'm not sure it's relevant to the decision we're making."

Even as the office works to enhance the nuclear detection network at the nation's borders and ports, DNDO officials are enlisting help from outside experts and the intelligence community to probe gaps in the system. In some cases, that includes testing the systems and detectors by having people trying to smuggle real nuclear material. Tests with mock terrorists have already begun, said Huban Gowadia, the detection office's assistant director for assessment.
I'm not an technical expert on radiation detection, so I can't say whether DNDO is making a sound technical decision. But a detection system, no matter how robust and no matter how many concentric rings it contains, should be only one system among a number of systems to prevent and mitigate radiological incidents.

It's worth remembering that only a fraction of the potential radioactive sources are legitimate threats for "dirty bomb" use, combining the high levels of radioactivity, long half-life, and sufficient quantity to be a realistic threat (source). Controlling radioactive sources is obviously important.

Other steps are also necessary. To mitigate the fear caused by a dirty bomb, communication would be vital. Recalling the DoD's estimate that no one would be killed by radiation in a 100-pound dirty bomb attack (source), it's not difficult to infer that a primary impact of such an attack would be fear.

In the case of a radiological attack, healthcare resources could be overwhelmed if there were a large number of "worried well." That's a contingency that should be prepared for. It's also possible that there could be a lot of refugees from the affected area.

At the most basic level, anyone involved in the response to a radiological event should be aware of who would respond. The list is long and involves a lot of agencies that local first responders generally do not work with (e.g., DoD assets, the National Nuclear Security Administration, etc.). Simply understanding the response structure is a simple first step.

One last thought on the DNDO news: The GAO argued that, since state and local governments will be making the buying decisions for radiation detectors within their jurisdictions, DNDO should provide better information about the detection equipment. DNDO responded with what I perceive to be a rather bland platitude:

The [GAO] report also recommends the office provide state and local authorities with information on radiation detection technologies to help them make more informed purchasing decisions.

"We strongly agree with this statement, as the DNDO feels that bolstering preventive [radiological and nuclear] detection capabilities within the domestic interior is an essential part of our nation's defense," the detection office wrote in response.

It's nice to hear this, but it's not clear what DNDO is proposing to do about it.

Updated 2007-04-30: This is a couple of weeks old, but Reuters has reported that the U.S. is giving radiation detectors to Mexican ports:
The United States will donate radiation detectors to Mexico and help install them in busy sea ports to prevent a terrorist attack with a "dirty bomb" or other radioactive material.

The U.S. Department of Energy will provide equipment and train customs officers at major ports on the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts, Mexico's Finance Ministry said.

Mexico increasingly receives cargo ships from Asia destined for the United States. Cargo is unloaded in Mexico and transported by land to its northern neighbor.

The detection equipment will be installed in Manzanillo, Lazaro Cardenas, Altamira and Veracruz, ports that account for 92 percent of the Mexico's maritime trade.

The first set of equipment should be installed and working by the end of the year, the ministry said.

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