Radiation Detectors Deployed in U.S. Cities

W A S H I N G T O N,   July 4, 2002 -- Beyond all of visibly stepped-up security for the Independence Day holiday, some virtually invisible layers of protection were also in place in several U.S. cities.

Chemical detectors are in place in Washington's Metro subway system and radiation detectors have been installed around the nation's capitol.

New precautions are being taken in other cities, as well, including Boston, where, for the first time, state police are wearing dosimeters to monitor radiation levels. National Guard units in some places are carrying larger, more sophisticated devices that can detect and identify sources of radioactivity.

Authorities say more early-warning technology should be deployed because, in the event of a terrorist attack, it would be crucial for authorities to learn what they were dealing with as soon as possible.

"That kind of awareness will make the difference between having a manageable event or having something that could run out of control," says Gerold Yonas, vice president and principal scientist of Sandia National Labs, the Albuquerque, N.M.-based facility focused on national security threats.

Rush to Build Better Detectors

Scientists inside and outside of government are engaged in a crash program to develop multiple-threat detection systems.

They draw an analogy with fire: Although fire remains a threat, the risk has been greatly lowered thanks to alarms, smoke detectors and sprinkler systems.

In the same way, researchers envision a network of sophisticated sensors across entire cities to detect radiation or biological or chemical agents.

"The kind of sensors and systems would be a regulation, would be required," says Yonas. "It would be in the building code."

Some of the sensors being developed are tiny — easily concealed and capable of not only detecting a threat, but also relaying the information instantly to authorities.

"We would provide the information to any government agency and police department, any fire department, any hospital, whoever it might be," says Solomon D. Trujillo, CEO of Graviton, a San Diego-based high-tech development firm that has developed sensors capable of detecting nuclear and other threats.

Much of the technology is already available. But creating a nationwide warning system would take time — probably a decade or more — and a lot of money.

So researchers say that it's no longer a question of whether it can be done, but whether there is the will to do it.