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Fears Lead US to Plan Expansion In Radioactive Material Tracking

By Eric Lipton and Matthew L. Wald

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Fearing that the nation remains too vulnerable to a “dirty bomb” or nuclear weapon, the Bush administration intends to announce a significant expansion in February of federal efforts to monitor the importing of radioactive material and its movement around the country, officials said Monday.

The office for domestic nuclear detection, set up at the Department of Homeland Security, would coordinate a growing but fragmented network of radiation detection equipment, administration officials said.

The security department is the biggest player in this field, installing more than 400 radiation monitors in the past two years at ports, border crossings and post offices that handle international mail. Cities like New York have also been buying detection equipment.

“The threat is very real,” said Rep. Heather A. Wilson, R-N.M., who led a recent study that called for better coordination of nuclear security efforts. “The possibility of nuclear material falling into wrong hands may be small, but it would have devastating consequences.”

The new federal office would coordinate research into new detection technologies, improve training on how to use them and help decide where to place them, administration officials said. If radioactive material is found, the office would also take charge of the federal response.

The program would include representatives from the Department of Energy, the FBI, the State Department and the Department of Defense.

Bush intends to include about $100 million of new financing for the program in the budget he is to release next week, along with another $100 million directed from other programs, an administration official said.

A Homeland Security spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said he could not comment on the effort until the budget was released. But even before the details have been disclosed, some people question whether the new spending will significantly enhance security.

“In theory, it is a great idea,” said James Jay Carafano, senior fellow for defense and domestic security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group based in Washington. “The real question is, Will this office actually have the authority to make budget decisions, set priorities and establish requirements for nuclear detection activities? It is a very open question.”

Detecting radiation in shipping containers or trucks is fairly easy, experts say, but it is much harder to use that information as a clue to the presence of a nuclear weapon, or a dirty bomb, which is intended to contaminate a small area with radioactive material using a conventional explosive.

The most prominent recent case cited by the shipping industry involved a vessel called the Palermo-Senator, which Navy Seals and Energy Department technicians identified as a possible threat on the basis of radiation emissions when it was in port in Newark, N.J., in September 2002.

The Coast Guard ordered the vessel back out to sea. Two days later, the source of the radiation was found to be naturally occurring trace elements contained in ceramic tiles.

Such false alarms are less frequent now but still occur. On Saturday, Customs and Border Protection officers at the Port of Los Angeles found cobalt-60 in an engine storage room on the container ship Toledo, which was under charter to Maersk Inc.