Anti-Nuke Port Security System Plagued by False Positives

WASHINGTON -- The post-Sept. 11 security blanket designed to keep nuclear material out of U.S. ports still has plenty of holes, including scores of false alarms from radiation detectors, scientists told Congress on Tuesday.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey security manager Bethann Rooney said the facility receives "about 150 alarms a day" from the 22 radiation portal monitors at the site. That's more than 10 times the number of false alarms originally expected.

Rooney was among a handful of experts who testified before a House Homeland Security subcommittee reviewing the nation's anti-nuke efforts.

Federal agents at Rooney's facilities use radiation detectors on about 45 percent of containers, and they plan to raise that to 85 percent at the end of the year after receiving additional detectors.

Rooney said the false alarms have not slowed shipping out of her port because follow-up inspections usually take less than 10 minutes.

Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey said he was worried that the high number of false alarms has prompted some agents to reduce the sensitivity of the devices, making them less effective in spotting real danger.

An official with the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the high number of false alarms is not limited to the New Jersey port.

Gene Aloise also noted that some border agents have been improperly using handheld radiation detectors to try to sweep an entire container, and he urged better training to rectify that error.

Since Sept. 11, the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars at U.S. ports and overseas posts in an effort to keep out a so-called "dirty bomb." Characterized by Dr. Benn Tannenbaum as a "weapon of mass disruption," a dirty bomb would spread radioactive material over an area but not likely cause the high death toll of a nuclear weapon.

Dr. Richard Wagner of the Los Alamos National Laboratory cautioned that the port radiation detection devices are not effective in detecting the highly enriched uranium that would be the key component of a nuclear weapon.

Wagner said that if the U.S. wants to keep out a nuclear bomb, it would do better to keep close tabs on the foreign sources of uranium in places like the former Soviet Union.

"It will always be far easier to monitor a lump of uranium at a known location than it will be to detect uranium smuggling," he said.

The scientist also urged lawmakers not to worry about missteps in the development and use of various high-tech tools.

"There will be false starts and there will be money wasted," Wagner said. "You're going to have to find some way for finding just the right degree of oversight."