The Business of Dirty Nukes

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By Sarah Phelan
In the war on terror, even cats are suspect. Or at least their kitty litter is.
That’s because of trace amounts of uranium and other suspect stuff that apparently triggers alarms at ports worldwide
But now comes news of better technology--and bigger profits—in the war on terror.
Today, the Bay Area-based Veritainer unveiled equipment at the Port of Oakland which can, according to Veritainer CEO John Alioto, detect “dirty bombs” in shipping containers

Yes, we know that Oakland is a domestic port, and thus less likely to be the site of smuggled nukes, but the Veritainer folks say they are using Oakland as a test case.

No, that doesn’t mean they’ll be bringing in dirty bombs to Oakland so they can test their technology. Instead, they’ll be bringing in small sources of naturally occurring nuclear material, such as americium, which is found in smoke detectors (and was, ironically enough, named for the Americas).

“This is to protect ports around the world from the low probability but high impact of nuclear smuggling,” said Veritainer Chairman and CEO John Alioto, who plans to charge $20 per container to screen for dirty bombs, provided his company gets certified by the Department of Homeland Security in January 2007.

In other words, Veritainer stands to make oodles of bucks, given that Oakland handles 2 million containers a year, L.A. handles 6 million and Rotterdam handles 20 million. Add to that the fact that radiation screening is now required at international ports, thanks to the Safe Port Act which President Bush signed in October, and you get the picture.
Right now, according to John Alioto, the customer is the government, with the National Nuclear Safety Agency setting aside $2.5 billion to cover initial costs.

Alioto also told me that there’ll be no danger to port workers from this technology,
“The equipment is purely passive,” he said. “Unlike dentists’ X-ray equipment, this is passive, purely detective equipment. So, there’ll be no shooting of radiation at the waterfront!” (The International Longshoremen and local residents will be happy to hear that.)

“Unlike radiation portal monitors, which were called kitty litter detectors because they couldn’t differentiate between dangerous and non-dangerous sources, these devices can identify isotopes, and say, yes, it americium. At which point, port officials can check the ship’s manifest and see if it’s certified to carry smoke detectors. And eventually, the machine will be able to do manifest comparison itself, too.”
So, next year, if you’re riding a ferry to Jack London Square, chances are port officials will be monitoring radioactive levels at the port, 24/7. So, leave the kitty litter at home.