Homeland Security Scales Back Plan to Screen Cars and Cargo With Radiation Detectors

The project fell victim to unrealistic cost estimates—and the laws of physics.

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After years of research and testing and at the expense of millions of dollars, plans by the Department of Homeland Security to use radiation detectors to screen cargo and vehicles entering the United States have largely failed, according to an audit obtained by the Washington Post.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, responsible for the project announced two years ago with a price tag of $1.2 billion, has decided to limit its planned deployment of the devices and use them in a far more limited manner than originally envisioned, says the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The results point to wildly unrealistic cost estimates and insufficient detection capabilities, according to reports.

Nuclear detection has long been one of the most vexing homeland security challenges, but it is hardly a post-9/11 conundrum. Months after the United States used the first atomic weapons against Japan, nervous congressmen queried Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the bomb, about the prospect of detecting nuclear materials hidden in Washington, D.C. Oppenheimer pithily replied that the only device that would do the job was a screwdriver to open every box and crate in the capital.

The laws of physics remain unchanged, says Wolfgang Panofsky, a scientist at Stanford University. "You still can't detect a nuclear device unless you are, say, 10 feet away from it—and even then it can be quite easily shielded." Those were the conclusions of the "Screwdriver Report," a secret study, which Panofsky coauthored, commissioned shortly after Oppenheimer's congressional testimony. The details of the report are still classified.