Radiation Detection Project Under Way in ChicagoFriday, Nov. 16, 2007
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Energy and Homeland Security departments are working with law enforcement officials in Chicago to equip police helicopters with radiation detection equipment, a top Energy Department official said yesterday (see GSN, Sept. 22, 2006).
Equipping police aircraft with the detectors could allow the city to conduct aerial surveys to map existing, permitted, sources of radiation such as those used in medical facilities.
Such a capability in a metropolitan area could also support the response to a "dirty bomb" attack, Deputy Energy Undersecretary for Counterterrorism Steven Aoki told senators during a hearing.
The Government Accountability Office reported last year that the Energy Department was making limited use of its ability to conduct aerial radiation surveys.
In fact, only one survey had been completed. In 2005, the New York City Police Department asked the Energy Department to conduct a background survey of the metropolitan area. Funded with roughly $800,000 in Homeland Security grants, the exercise identified 80 locations with radiological sources that required additional investigation to pin down the level of risk.
In the process, NYPD officials discovered a former industrial site contaminated with radium, a radiation source associated with bone cancer. Authorities closed the site to the public.
Within a terrorism threat context, aerial surveys can both help detect radiological threats quickly and measure contamination levels after an incident, GAO officials noted.
"Despite these benefits neither DOE nor DHS have embraced mission responsibility for funding and conducting surveys or notifying city officials that such a capability exists," they wrote in the 2006 report. "DOE officials told us they are reluctant to conduct additional surveys because they have a limited number of helicopters that are needed for emergency response functions and told us that it is DHS's mission to protect cities from potential terrorist attacks."
Revisiting this topic during a hearing yesterday in a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee, Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) asked what progress had been made during a hearing ominously titled: "Not a Matter of If' But of When': The Status of U.S. Response Following an RDD Attack."
While senior GAO official Gene Aloise told senators that "nothing has been done" to address the issue identified just more than a year ago, Aoki disagreed.
The Chicago project, which is expected to allow local law enforcement to conduct surveys similar to that completed in New York, is a pilot program that will explore the feasibility of extending it to other urban areas in the United States, he said.
The Chicago Police Department has purchased a helicopter and detection equipment with Homeland Security grant funding, and Energy Department officials expect to train the local officials how to conduct radiation surveys from the air, according to the Energy Department.