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DHS awards large contract for better radiation portal monitors

DHS awards large contract for better radiation portal monitors

   Three companies will share $1.16 billion to develop and test next-generation sensor technology for detecting radiation in full containers and truck trailers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Friday.

   The government considers ocean shipping containers and transportation systems at high risk for being compromised by terrorists seeking to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into U.S. ports or cities.

   The government is deploying drive-through radiation portal monitors at U.S. seaports and border crossings, as well as a select few foreign ports. But the technology is limited by a high rate of false alarms because it cannot distinguish between naturally occurring radiation such as found in bananas or ceramic tile, and fissile material such as highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. Customs officers resolve false alarms by pulling over trucks to a second detection gate and finally using handheld isotope identifiers to analyze the type of radiation and whether it is compatible with the product described on the manifest, all of which can cause shipment delays.

   The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) awarded five-year contracts to Raytheon Co.-Integrated Defense Systems, Thermo Electron Corp. and Canberra Industries to develop Advanced Spectroscopic Portal machines to identify the nuclear signature of materials and rule out benign sources. The contracts include four one-year options for procurement of the machines after a base research and development year. A key part of the new technology is software that can analyze the radiation reads.

   DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said the department has ordered the first 80 of a planned 1,400 advanced detection equipment and will begin installing them in early fall. The Port of New York-New Jersey will be the first recipient of the new technology, followed by other seaports and land checkpoints.

   The department has accelerated deployment of radiation portal monitors since the Dubai Ports World controversy focused attention on cargo security early this year.

   So far U.S. Customs and Border Protection has installed more than 225 large-scale detection machines at U.S. seaports, through which roughly 60 percent of all containers now pass. By the end of the year, close to 90 percent of all sea containers will get radiation checks. And by the end of 2007, when at least 621 devices are scheduled to be in place, that figure will rise to 98 percent or above, Chertoff said. CBP has had to resolve more than 318,000 nuisance alarms since it began installing radiation portal monitors at ports of entry two years ago.

The new systems will cost from $350,000 to $600,000 per unit compared to $180,000 per unit for the current technology, said DNDO Director Val Oxford.

   Chertoff also announced a Securing the Cities Initiative that will explore how to deploy advanced spectroscopic radiation detection devices in and around cities “so we could detect a truck coming into a city with a dirty bomb, even if it didn’t cross an international border.”

   The DNDO is working with New York City to develop a pilot program to test the use of radiation detection equipment in the interior of the country, he said.

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