Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Does This Make Sense?

A pair of simultaneous reports has me scratching my head. First, from Syracuse, New York, we learn:

[Radiation] detectors are now in the hands of two local police agencies, as well as state police, as the Office of Homeland Security expands its radiological security program into Central New York.

The hope is if a terrorist is transporting radioactive material to make a dirty bomb, police will be alerted to the material in transit, at the assembly point of the device or at the plot's launch site, said Frank Tabert, deputy director of the state Office of Homeland Security.

The detectors are paid for by grants from the Office of Homeland Security. Twelve police agencies statewide with bomb squads shared $1.4 million in grant money.

Generally speaking, Deputy Chief Michael Kerwin of the Syracuse police, said the devices usually are given to traffic units on the highways and used at large events downstate, such as Times Square on New Year's Eve.
While radiation detectors have some utility in a protective system, their biggest limitation is that they are, for the most part, a last-minute intervention. For this type of intervention to work, you've got to have a bad guy who is already in the U.S., has procured radioactive material and is transporting it so that he can assemble it (i.e., the 11th hour) or deploy it (i.e., the 11th hour, 59th minute).

Granted, the article does say New York intends to station larger, more sophisticated detectors at toll booths and other locations - and this makes some sense, as it's a good idea to station such equipment at transportation bottlenecks. But detectors alone are far from sufficient to protect against radiological threats.

At the same time, in the UK there is doubt about whether European ports - another key bottleneck in the transportation system - will continue radiation scanning of US-bound cargo. The problem? Not enough money:
Doubt has been cast over whether the security scanning of containers bound for the US from Southampton docks will continue after questions were raised over the financial feasibility of the move long term.

The city's docks were among the first ports in the world to start scanning containers destined for the US for nuclear materials as part of a move to step up homeland counter terrorism measures.

[I]t has been reported that the European Union has expressed concern over the long term feasibility of the programme after it was calculated that imposing the scanning of all containers would cost in the region of $500 a unit to US trading partners, based on simple calculations.
Overseas radiation scanning of cargo containers makes a world of sense. It is part of a layered security strategy, aimed at preventing the theoretical bad guy from moving radiological materials into the U.S. in the first place.

Not only that, but ports themselves are key potential targets for a radiological attack. If a "dirty bomb" were deployed in a port and the area became contaminated with radiation, port operations might be shut down for an extended period, with significant economic effects (especially locally).

The idea that we are deploying a new, 11th-hour intervention but potentially losing another layer of the security system is a puzzler.

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