June 6, 2005 — -- The government has announced its enhanced nuclear inspection program with great fanfare, but ABC News has learned the new, drive-through detection machines being installed -- at a cost of a half-billion dollars -- cannot detect the enriched uranium that many say poses the greatest threat.
"Al Qaeda's highest goal is to have a nuclear explosion in the United States, said Rep. Ed. Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security. "The equipment that is being deployed will not detect the highly enriched uranium which is the most likely source of the material they would use."
The machines, however, are triggered by materials such as kitty litter, which gives off a certain kind of gamma ray and has caused many a false alarm.
"Unfortunately, we have about a half-billion dollars worth of kitty litter detectors that will not detect enriched uranium reliably," said Dr. Tom Cochran, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear program.
A new report by the NRDC confirmed that the latest machines are "unlikely to detect kilogram quantities of lightly shielded high enriched uranium placed near the center of cargo-shipping containers."
This, experts say, could leave the country's ports susceptible to terrorists smuggling nuclear weapons or material in one of the thousands of containers that come into the country every day.
ABC News conducted test projects in 2002 and 2003 in which uranium shielded in lead easily passed by the detection machines in place.
But just last week in Los Angeles, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff presented the new machines as just part of a broad effort to make the country safe from nuclear terrorism.
"The end state we want to reach is not any one technology that gives us total protection, but layers of technology and people that give us as close to 100 percent as is humanly possible," he said.
Privately, however, DHS officials concede the new machines' shortcomings. The new machines can detect radioactive material that could be used in a dirty bomb, but there is still no layer of technology that will spot or stop weapons-grade uranium.
In fact, the government has taken a step backward in making our country safer, said retired Air Force Col. Randy Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security.
"It makes us less secure because we're spending money on something that doesn't make us more secure and that money could be going toward things that would actually make our families more secure," Larsen said.