Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 7 News List

US to install high-tech detectors

SECURITY Long frustrated by the false positives generated by the old scanners, the US government will start putting new nuclear detectors in major ports and borders this fall


Nuclear detectors that should not be triggered by cat litter and other harmless materials in cargo containers will be installed this fall at major seaports and border crossings, the US government said on Friday.

The rollout of the high-tech systems to detect radiological substances arriving in the US will be at the Port of New York and New Jersey, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

The department is also expanding a test program to prevent nuclear and dirty-bomb materials already in the US from entering New York City, he said.

The estimated 670 detectors in place at ports and borders long have frustrated Homeland Security officials because of false positives triggered by medical supplies, cat litter, bananas and other innocuous materials with low levels of naturally occurring radiation.

"We don't want to send the red flag up every time someone moves a shipment in of perfectly respectable granite," Chertoff told reporters in announcing US$1.1 billion in contracts to three companies to help develop and deploy the systems.

Officials said the new detectors are expected to reduce about 831,000 false positives each year to 15,000.

The department wants to have 80 of the new detectors in place by this fall, Chertoff said, and 1,400 for the nation's 317 ports of entry by 2011. The new scanners cost an estimated US$350,000 each, about double the price of existing ones.

Congressional investigators questioned in March whether the cost of the scanner upgrades would be worth the results. The Governmental Accountability Office continues to analyze a Homeland Security cost-benefits plan to justify the expense, said the office's assistant director Jim Shafer.

While the new scanners may cut down on false positive rates, "these things are marginal gains" against "extremely high costs," Shafer said in an interview on Friday.

Penrose Albright, who led Homeland Security's border nuclear detection program before leaving the agency a year ago, said the new scanners will "dramatically complicate the lives of people who want to smuggle materials."

Albright noted that the detectors still won't be alerted to uranium or plutonium shielded by thick cases of lead. And installing them above speeding traffic on highways or bridges -- as Homeland Security is considering in metropolitan New York -- raises questions about how vehicles would then be stopped, he said.

Chertoff said the department was looking at ways to put the detectors in a variety of transportation byways -- roads, rails, seaports -- outside New York.

Scanners already are in place at the Holland Tunnel between New York City and New Jersey and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, said Vayl Oxford, director of the department's domestic nuclear detection office.

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