How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Detectors

Hey, everybody -- say hi to Geoff Edwards. He's a former Army medical service officer, an Iraq veteran and a grad student in urban policy at Georgia State University. He's also a new single-issue blogger focusing on trafficking at Give him some clicks to thank him for this post, okay?When undercover teams from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) used rental cars to smuggle nuclear material into the United States last December, it wasn't because they foiled detection technology. Instead they used phony shipping documents, the fake ID of traffickers worldwide, to slip past human inspectors alerted to the nuclear material by radiation portal monitors (RPM).Given seemingly effective radiation monitors and ineffective document verification systems, it's no surprise that a GAO report released last month warns that the deployment of the former has fallen behind schedule. "As of December 2005," the report states, "DHS had deployed 670 of 3,034 radiation portal monitors -- about 22 percent of the portal monitors DHS plans to deploy." In order to meet the program's goals by the September 2009 completion date, "monthly deployments would have to increase by almost 230 percent." At the current pace, Customs and Border Protection will install the final RPM sometime in late 2014. By then the current generation of portal monitors will be ineffective against the ingenuity of rapidly adaptive traffickers. But are they effective now?When available, yes.SAIC produces the most effective solution in current use, the Integrated Container Inspection System (ICIS). ICIS brings together several complementary technologies including an RPM and a gamma ray imaging system known as VACIS, which produces a clear radiographic image of a container's interior.scanb.jpgThis image is often overlayed with container information gathered by the RPM. "By fusing the information from the two devices together, we get a lot of helpful data," explains SAIC executive Terry Gibson, "It takes a whole lot of lead shielding to prevent the RPM from finding nuclear material and the VACIS will find that shielding for us."ICIS is the architecture that allows information about the container to be put together like this. But once all the information is assembled, a skilled human operator still needs to examine the shipping manifest for discrepancies. For instance, she might see that tennis shoes are on the manifest but the radiographic image shows a container full of watermelons. Bam, the container receives a secondary inspection.In another container the RPM may detect the signature radiation for Cobalt-60, a potential dirty-bomb ingredient. If the container manifest declares medical waste and the VACIS image indicates medical waste, the customs officials might decide there is no reason to inspect the container since Cobalt-60 is commonly used to sterilize medical equipment.And don't get me started on bananas.So should we worry? Well, yeah. Uranium, the baddest of radioactive materials, emits gamma rays that are easily absorbed by wood shielding, making it almost undetectable to current technologies. New devices such as those using Passport Systems' nuclear resonance fluoresce imaging (NRFI) will detect contraband at the elemental level. It's virtually impossible to hide uranium in a container that will eventually be sifted through, atom by atom.The Department of Homeland Security is watching. Last year it awarded Passport Systems a $1.6 million research contract to further develop NRFI technology.--Geoff Edwards

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