Radiation detectors tested in Nevada


By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY

NEVADA TEST SITE, Nev. — The Bush administration is ramping up efforts to prevent terrorists from smuggling radiological material into the country that could be used to set off a "dirty bomb" or even a nuclear weapon, according to the Homeland Security Department.

Plans call for a new radiation detection test site deep in the Nevada desert, more detectors at the nation's seaports and border crossings and a 70% budget increase for Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).

The initiative comes amid chilling threats made last month by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — and some say it can't come too soon.

"Al-Qaeda used vans in 1993 (to bomb the World Trade Center) and planes in 2001," says former 9/11 commissioner Tim Roemer. "It could be some kind of catastrophic attack next time."

The public has not been alerted to intelligence suggesting terrorists have the materials or are preparing to detonate a device that could cause chaos — or far worse — in a major American city. But the possibility worries the government.

"We have to move aggressively, or the consequences are going to be dire," says Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on a House subcommittee on nuclear attack prevention.

In his fiscal 2007 budget, President Bush is seeking $535.7 million for the DNDO, which is responsible for preventing radiological or nuclear weapons from getting into the country. That includes $178 million for new radiation detectors and $100 million for the development of equipment used by agents along the nation's borders and at events such as presidential inaugurations and Super Bowl games.

To test that equipment, Homeland Security is working at the storied Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. government tested nuclear weapons for more than four decades. Near a cratered area where mushroom clouds once rose, construction is underway on an 11-acre site where scientists will test weapons needed for this generation's war on terrorism.

"We've gone from the offense to the defense," says DNDO chief Vayl Oxford.

Workers are building a mock border crossing so testing trucks can drive containers of radioactive materials through radiation portal monitors. Agents at the $33 million site also will test modern versions of Geiger counters.

While the new site is being built, scientists have started work just downhill from a highly secured 100,000-square-foot steel and concrete bunker where the government stores its nuclear weapons material.

There, Oxford's chief test scientist, Dan Blumenthal, holds a shoebox-sized radiation detector against the side of a huge metal cargo container and waits a couple of minutes for it to tell him what he already knows: that there's plutonium-239 inside, potentially the makings for a nuclear bomb.

But nothing comes up on the device's small screen. And that's proof of what federal agents at the nation's seaports and border crossings know: Many of the mobile radiation detectors they use work only about 50% of the time.

Blumenthal's team is testing 30 mobile detectors against the metal sides of a half-dozen cargo containers. Some are loaded with weapons-grade material; others contain cat litter, ceramic tiles and other goods that set off detectors because they contain naturally occurring radioactive materials.

"This is the first time the government's been able to do high-fidelity testing" using actual bombmaking materials, such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium, Oxford says.

As tests are finished over the next several years, Oxford's team will use the results to retrofit existing equipment that doesn't work very well, to buy new equipment for federal agents and to write what Oxford calls a "Consumer Reports-style" guide so that state and local officials will know what to buy — and what not to buy — with federal grant money.

Oxford calls their work "a big leap forward." Among their efforts:

• Determining where radiation detectors should be set up worldwide.

• Making plans to better secure the nation's cities, perhaps through random highway stops — such as drunken driving or seatbelt checks — where officers would check cars with hand-held detectors or check trucks at weigh stations, something now done in just 11 states.

• Creating surge capacity so that if intelligence indicated a particular threat, the government could quickly put detection equipment in subway stations, at airports or wherever it was needed.