Under the Gantry

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

THE DEPARTMENT of Homeland Security recently announced a plan to do what many scientists had once thought impossible: effectively inspect large numbers of vehicles entering a major metropolitan area for radioactive materials without bringing life to a standstill. In the 1950s, a still-classified report on the possibility of scanning for nuclear materials found that detectors could be easily defeated, one of its authors recently told US News & World Report. Experts today say that the nuclear weapons are heavily shielded, making detection tricky, and that current front-line scanners have difficulty in reliably detecting even those nuclear materials not encased in a bomb.

Nevertheless, DHS is pushing forward with a pilot program to test the feasibility of scanning large numbers of cars and trucks entering Manhattan for radioactivity.

The goal is to set up a system of both fixed and mobile scanners on roads leading into Manhattan. The system would require little or no slowdown in traffic to operate. Fixed detectors might be placed at tollbooths and other traffic choke points. Mobile scanners might be used to conduct random checks. Ideally, this program would add another layer of security to the nuclear detection regimes at border crossings and seaports. If successful, it would require little or no effort from those being inspected, so it wouldn't snarl traffic in the tri-state area. Another point in its favor is that the pilot program is not very expensive, as Homeland Security projects go, and that even if the resulting system is not perfect, it will foster development of newer and better technologies that will make Americans safer.

Even given all that, however, we are glad Homeland Security is not breaking the bank on its latest experiment. Based on the available information on the inconsistency of nuclear detection technology, it is fair to wonder whether this is the right time to conduct such a large-scale test and whether such a program may be an inefficient use of government resources.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company