In The Works: New Radiation Monitoring For US Ports

That low-flying helicopter crisscrossing the skies over the San Francisco Bay Area for the next three days is gathering data on background radiation levels, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.
The crew is collecting data on background radiation so local and federal law enforcement agencies will have a base line to compare to spikes detected by new monitoring equipment sniffing for radioactive materials at the nation's ports and border crossings.
NNSA is conducting the survey in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, which was criticized in 2009 by the General Accounting Office for not doing more to monitor the smuggling of radioactive materials on the domestic front:
DNDO has made some progress in strengthening radiation detection capabilities to address critical gaps and vulnerabilities in combating nuclear smuggling, which include the land border area between ports of entry into the United States, aviation, and small maritime vessels. However, DNDO is still in the early stages of program development, and has not clearly developed long term plans, with costs and time frames, for achieving its goal of closing these gaps by expanding radiological and nuclear detection capabilities.
The GAO report gives us a hint what kind of equipment the government is developing to detect radiation, as welll as that equipment's limitations. Among those limitations, a lack of information about background radiation:
"The level of background radiation in water differs from the level of background radiation on land, which affects the capability of equipment to detect and identify certain types of radioactive material," the GAO report states.
Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) has been searching for better equipment to use in the nation's seaports, according to GAO:
To date, DNDO has, among other things, tested boat-mounted radiation detectors, detection equipment that can be carried in a backpack, and handheld radiological detection and identification devices that can withstand exposure to water. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of radiation detection equipment in the maritime environment remains limited.
The boat-mounted systems can detect radioactive material when it arrives in port, but can't determine which vessel is carrying it, or even in which direction it lies, according to the GAO report.
The backpack detectors are too bulky for Coast Guard personnel, who already have to wear bulky protective equipment when boarding ships with narrow doors. And the handheld detectors sink when dropped in the water and can't withstand pressures below 30 feet.

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