Nuclear Terrorism False Positives

From the AP:

A man who recently had received radiation treatment for a medical condition set off a nuclear alert detector on a fire engine, prompting police to close down a roadway in Escondido while authorities searched for a nuclear weapon.

Posted on March 21, 2005 at 8:07 AM • 25 Comments

Comments

AnonymousMarch 21, 2005 8:42 AM

It's quite easy to mask real weapons from these primitive detection instruments.

Paul JohnsonMarch 21, 2005 8:54 AM

This isn't new. This has happened at few time with detectors they have in the New York City subway system. All the people detained were cancer patients who had just under went radiation treatment.

Israel TorresMarch 21, 2005 10:06 AM

GOT 404?
Here is another valid link:
http://www.newsmax.com/archives/ic/2005/3/3/...

"Sheriff's deputies pulled over the driver and detained him and his passenger for about one hour while they confirmed that the man was not carrying a nuclear weapon and that he had received radiation treatment, according to Sgt. Robert Healey."

They didn't mention whether or not they performed a "felony stop procedure", but most likely they did for their own safetly.

Israel Torres

ProbitasMarch 21, 2005 12:45 PM

For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that a trained individual using radiation detection equipment as part of a multi-faceted approach to securing specific areas can be an effective use of time. That, however, is not what is happening here. Placing on fire trucks, alongside the hoses, Jaws of Life, EMT supplies and tools of numerous other trades, equipment sensitive enough to detect radiation from a passing cancer patient, is asking for this kind of a situation.

If we, as a nation, feel that the threat is severe enough to warrant roving radioactivitiy detection patrols, then let's do just that. Spening the money on all this equipment is probably unwarranted and useless in any case; dumping the task on people who cannot properly carry it out ensures it.

ScateMarch 21, 2005 12:54 PM

"They didn't mention whether or not they performed a "felony stop procedure", but most likely they did for their own safetly."

I'm sure that "felony stop procedures" would be a perfectly adequate solution to protect one's self from a nuclear weapon.

I'm wondering if they frisked the man to see if he might be hiding a nuclear weapon somewhere on his person?

Preventing trafficking of nuclear materials is extremely important, though, so it will be interesting to see how the increase in radiation monitors plays out in the future and if the false alarms eventually cause people to ignore them.

anonymousMarch 21, 2005 2:18 PM

One of my relatives received treatment for prostate cancer a year or two ago, which apparently involved implanting radioactive sources near the prostate. Several days after the operation, he took a flight, and these sources were detected -- resulting in hours of questioning and threats of a cavity search! This despite the fact that he's a man in his 60s, and was carrying a note from his doctor detailing the implants, what they're there for, and what they're made from.

There seems to be a failure to accurately plan for false positives in all these situations.

ArikMarch 21, 2005 7:26 PM

What irks me is that the officials wieloding those detectors are not in any way liable for the harassment they cause the traveller.

They don't mind stupidly delaying people whenever and for whatever, because it's all done in the name of 'security' or 'counter-terrorism' and you can't sue anyone for your lost time or your humiliation during your full cavity search.

-- Arik

Steven DeFordMarch 21, 2005 8:50 PM

"I'm wondering if they frisked the man to see if he might be hiding a nuclear weapon somewhere on his person?"

Being as a nuclear weapon (actual nuclear weapon, rather than, say, a dirty bomb) would have to have at least 10 kilograms of nuclear material based on current public-domain knowledge of nuclear weapons, I the idea of concealing a nuclear weapon on one's person rather amusing. (ref: http://hypertextbook.com/physics/modern/weapons/)

Steve

Davi OttenheimerMarch 22, 2005 1:23 AM

Bruce, let's see. If you were in charge of San Diego County security what else would you buy with Homeland Defense Department grant money?

Hmmm, you have to do SOMETHING to fight "terrorism" in the huge sprawling metropolis. I imagine the company selling detectors said something compelling like "You aren't really fighting terrorism until you have fire-trucks that detect nuclear bombs." Cool. Big ticket risk = security, right?

Yeah, I wonder if the people who calculated the "threat" of nuclear attack to the city are the same people who misled San Diego into their present financial disaster?

http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050227/...

"Did the people who were in decision-making positions breach the trust of the participants involved? I would argue that they did when they made these ongoing choices to intentionally underfund the pension plan."

And let us never forget the court case in July 2001 when Lockheed was found to charge "$70 for every $271 fine generated by a red-light ticket in San Diego".

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2001/09/05/...

Yes, indeed, San Diego has a fine tradition of questionable leadership. Host of the 1996 Republican National Conference, this big city on the far right has only one large, local newspaper, "The San Diego Union Tribune" that features Goerge Will and Arianna Huffington. San Diegans also boast virtually non-stop radio access to G. Gordon Liddy, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, and Larry King.

Want to talk about leadership? San Diego is famous for men like Duncan ("I never met a defense bill I didn't like") Hunter and Brian ("Let pollution run free") Bilbray. In a recent battle, local war veterans asked that a huge cross be removed from their war memorial, while Christian "activists" threatened retribution:

http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/metro/...

"We will either prevail before this City Council to maintain the cross in its current location, or we will prevail in the 2006 and 2008 elections. It is not the jurisdiction of this City Council to negotiate away our religious freedoms. The Mount Soledad cross is non-negotiable."

And just when you thought you couldn't get any further right than that, San Diego recently launched an online headquarters for Conservatives & Libertarians in the Goth community.

So (ahem) back to my point about how cool it must be to burn cash on outfitting all the firetrucks with nuclear bomb detectors and detaining passer-bys...

Henrik EdlundMarch 22, 2005 6:44 AM

"Is that a nuclear weapon in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"

rjhMarch 22, 2005 8:16 AM

For more background on this see: http://www.rsna.org/publications/rsnanews/dec04/...

Note that these are handheld detectors. Also note that the actual radiation emissions from common treatments significantly exceeds the typical radiation emissions from an explosive nuclear device. They are high enough that nursing staff for these patients must avoid taking too much time with the patients, due to exposure safety levels.

It is not practical to avoid false positive alerts through technology. Genuine legitimate medical procedures appear the same as terrorist uses to portable devices.

A procedural solution is needed that can deal with the high level of false positives.

Davi OttenheimerMarch 22, 2005 10:10 AM

@rjh

"High level of false positives" is putting it mildly.

http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050303/...

The "Society of Nuclear Medicine says that an estimated 16 million radioactive medical procedures are performed in the United States every year."

And along with each patient, it looks like you may end up with several residual radioactive targets.

"'We call it The Great Diaper Hunt,' [Home Security Office Director] Ghio said. Cancer patients receiving radiation treatment sometimes have to use diapers during the therapy, he said. Once in the landfill, they set off the alarms. 'We then have to sift through the truck and the landfill and find the diaper.'"

At least the fire departments are now equipped to document the level of radioactive waste rotting in landfills. But even that doesn't seem to be working in anyone's favor. Once they find the offending radioactive article the procedure seems to be to declare "a nothing deal and everybody goes home".

rjhMarch 22, 2005 10:51 AM

The level is high, but the 16 million treatments needs to be put into context. If you track through the link that I referenced you also find details on the different common treatments, travel restrictions for the patient, and detectable lifespan for the radioisotope. For most treatments, the patient is told not to travel for several days for medical reasons unrelated to security issues. For some treatments, the radiation level will drop below detectable levels before this. For others, it will not.

The RSNA and SNM are working to establish reasonable procedures to allow police, etc. to quickly confirm claims of medical treatment.

As for diapers and other disposable items, all of those treatments use radioisotopes that decay to undetectable levels within 6 months. So the appropriate response is to file and forget once you know that it is harmless.

Chung LeongMarch 22, 2005 2:49 PM

False alarms are not necessary a bad thing. Weapons are more often used to intimidate rather than to cause harm. This is especially true for nuclear weapons. If you remember, Japan didn't surrender because of the physical destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It surrendered from the fear of continual atomic attacks--a successful bluff as the US did not have more bombs immediately available.

To achieve their ends, terrorist groups do not actually have to have a nuclear device. They can simply claim to have one to generate fear. To counter that, we need a credible defense against possible attacks. It doesn't have to be efficient or even effective, it just needs to be credible. A detection system that sounds an alarm when a cancer patient walks by is more credible than one that ignores the radioactivity. The situation is absurd to be sure, but it does serve as a good advertisement of the system's sensitivity.

Davi OttenheimerMarch 22, 2005 9:14 PM

@Chung
You make an interesting parallel between terrorist groups making threats and the U.S. strategy in the 1940s...don't know if you meant it that way.

You're right, false alarms are not necessarily a bad thing. But I doubt bomb-detection or drug-detection would be purchased if they were at the same rediculously low standard as these gimicky devices. Moreover, compare the return on investment for these detectors to improving radio/sat communication technology for the fire fighters or improving the disaster recovery capability of their operations center...

The "advertisement" you speak of means little or nothing to anyone who really understands risk, including terrorists, as Anonymous points out.

Davi OttenheimerMarch 23, 2005 11:02 AM

@rjh
I suspect you know far more about radiation than I, but you miss the point on detecting radioactivity.

There is NO accepted legal definition of what can be detected as "radioactive" that does not pose a health risk (e.g. does not need regulatory control).

So if you start using detectors at/around landfills and you detect radioactivity, then I say there is culpable knowledge of something that MAY be a health risk. My guess is the fire fighters are trained to be seeking nuclear terrorists (that thankfully are still only imaginary), and so they ignore the more pressing and relevant risks to their constituents.

Almost everything in the world contains some radioactivity, but in terms of risk, radiation monitors serve a real (legally relevant) purpose at landfills:
- preserving a landfill permit, which often prohibit accepting any "radioactivity"
- reduce or avoid cleanup costs if contaminated
- help deal with concerned citizens and monitoring groups who actually care about toxicity in their neighborhood

Again, I am not an expert on radioactivity, but the Bureau of Radiation Protection seems to say that if the radioisotopes take six-months to decay they are not defined as short-lived (ten half-lives should pass before items are disposed to landfill).

rjhMarch 23, 2005 12:44 PM

@Davi

The six month figure was for the length of time that a typical dose used for a patient will remain detectable by the kind of portable detectors used. The half life is less. For details on the radioisotopes used, read the referenced reports. There is enough variety to prevent making a simple answer. Six months is just the longest time for typically used isotopes. One of the commonly used isotopes has a half life measured in minutes. That is what makes the 16 million figure misleading. The 16 million includes some treatments that will not be detectable a few days later.

The landfill issue I'm addressing is just that of disposal of waste and trash from a person under treatment. There are rules regarding what level of radioactivity can be discarded as municipal waste. I've never checked regarding the details of diapers, which would also be subject to biohazard regulations.

But people are not careful about such things at home. They will discard waste. I think it is below the regulatory limits.

The overall problem is real and being addressed by non-detector technology. There is no practical means of having thousands of portable detectors capable of separating legitimate from illegitimate use. For the medical treatments one approach being proposed is:
1) Provide patients with a standard form to give to police, etc.
2) Train police, etc. to understand the high probability of a false positive from the detector and make use of this form routine.
3) The standard form will provide description and contact information. The contacts are likely the radiation safety office at the hospital responsible for the treatment. Radiation safety office is usually staffed 24x7.
4) Provide a directory of RSO's to police, so that they need not trust potentially forged forms.

This should quickly clear patients.

Meanwhile work can proceed on reducing the false positive rate. This will be hard because it really requires detectors that perform spectral power analysis, and that won't be easy for something cheap and portable. It also will not eliminate false positives. It will only reduce the rate.

NylarthotepMarch 24, 2005 6:00 AM

I suppose I should give you some perspective since no one is especially listening the rjh.

The detection equipment that the fire departments use is for their saftey, not for roaming nuclear weapons searches. This case is a false positive in the loosest manner because the security system involved had an involvement and detected a non-threat source.

The detectors are broad spectrum gamma radiation detectors in most cases. They are generally inherited from the DOE or other departments that are surplusing old equipment. In cases of large cities, they may be new equipment or even more sophisticated, but generally not, due to the need for the equipment to be able to take rough handling.

Why do fire departments need radiation detectors? (No, not nuclear detectors.) Fire departments respond to any and all fires. They go to facilities that deal with hazardous chemicals and to topic, with radioactive materials. So you pull up to a fire and look for a parking place. There is a great deal of fly ash falling to the ground. If that facility has radioactive material, and it's on fire, then there is radioactivity in the ashes. So do you want to park in an area where the radiation levels are increasing and where you potentially will inhale or swallow radioactive material? No, you have a detector to tell you if the area has a radiation problem, then you park up-wind if possible to avoid that problem.
Oh, and Davi, these aren't "Gimicky" devices. They've been used for decades by people all over the world to do exactly what I've just described.

Next. The devices are commonly left on to be able to address a changing emergency scenario. So when the person with the medical isotope passes by, the detector goes off. Now, this is where you start to stray from the security system that is in place. The fire official took actions based on a positive reading, but a highly unknown set of circumstances. Here we fall into the better safe than sorry scenario. He calls the police and reports what he has seen. The police, not likely having a sophisticated understanding of the situation, likely over-reacts. Why? Well, because nuclear is first mentioned and we all know from the news that nuclear is EVIL!!!!!!

The reporting of this whole situation was atrocious. Do you honestly think the police are so stupid as to frisk a person for a nuclear device? Give them a little credit, or at least the benefit of the doubt. As to them reacting at all, I fully believe they did the right thing. A person working on a "dirty bomb" would likely have some sort of contamination and could very well set off the detectors like this guy. You don't like the response? Would you rather that nothing be done and a real dirty bomb be exploded in a large city? You have to hold all portions of the scenario in perspective here. If you'd rather not have the harassment of the police reacting to this, then the person getting the treatment should stay home. If they can't then they are the ones risking the harassment related to a treatment that they needed.

As for Diaper Hunts, here is a situation where the company put in a system and then didn't put in the correct procedures and response equipment to address the situations. The reactions they have now are all completely related to what they planned for. If they don't like what they have to do, they can always change procedures, and/or invest in better equipment.


To paraphrase Bruce here:
Sometimes I wish that those in charge of security actually understood radiological sciences.

WarrenMarch 25, 2005 7:56 PM

Nylarthotep wrote: "Would you rather that nothing be done and a real dirty bomb be exploded in a large city?"

Since there have been rather few dirty-bomb detonations in large cities as a result of our previously lax attitudes toward cancer patients, you totally lack correlation. You're making an argument based on -zero- evidence, in response to an -unknown- threat.

No one knows how many dirty bombs might be stopped by such detectors, nor, more importantly, how many dirty bombs might not be detected at all. No one knows if the detectors are properly suited for this purpose, or whether, as it appears, they just piss off cancer patients.

You're treading on a slippery slope. Why not go ahead and plaster the entire city with radiation detectors? Why not give every man, woman and child a handheld detector and a hotline to which they can efficiently tattle on their neighbors, co-workers, and roommates? I'm sure there'd be far fewer dirty bombs around. Not that zero's any smaller than zero or anything, but, hey -- it's a worthwhile precaution, right?

"If you'd rather not have the harassment of the police reacting to this, then the person getting the treatment should stay home."

Oh, I see. So the cancer patient ought not to consider such pastimes as purchasing groceries or picking up their children from school. They should just accept that their illness has cast them into a new socioeconomic class that does not engender them with such rights as leaving their homes. After all, they're cancer patients, why on earth would they need to leave their homes? Don't they know their very existence is interfering with our continual crusade against the -very real- threat of a dirty bomb?!

Sure, cancer is the number one killer of people in the developed world, claiming approximately one in four of us in the end. That doesn't mean we should give 'em human rights or anything -- it's the new millenium!

WMarch 25, 2005 7:59 PM

Nylarthotep wrote: "Would you rather that nothing be done and a real dirty bomb be exploded in a large city?"

Since there have been rather few dirty-bomb detonations in large cities as a result of our previously lax attitudes toward cancer patients, you totally lack correlation. You're making an argument based on -zero- evidence, in response to an -unknown- threat.

No one knows how many dirty bombs might be stopped by such detectors, nor, more importantly, how many dirty bombs might not be detected at all. No one knows if the detectors are properly suited for this purpose, or whether, as it appears, they just piss off cancer patients.

You're treading on a slippery slope. Why not go ahead and plaster the entire city with radiation detectors? Why not give every man, woman and child a handheld detector and a hotline to which they can efficiently tattle on their neighbors, co-workers, and roommates? I'm sure there'd be far fewer dirty bombs around. Not that zero's any smaller than zero or anything, but, hey -- it's a worthwhile precaution, right?

"If you'd rather not have the harassment of the police reacting to this, then the person getting the treatment should stay home."

Oh, I see. So the cancer patient ought not to consider such pastimes as purchasing groceries or picking up their children from school. They should just accept that their illness has cast them into a new socioeconomic class that does not engender them with such rights as leaving their homes. After all, they're cancer patients, why on earth would they need to leave their homes? Don't they know their very existence is interfering with our continual crusade against the -very real- threat of a dirty bomb?!

Sure, cancer is the number one killer of people in the developed world, claiming approximately one in four of us in the end. That doesn't mean we should give 'em human rights or anything -- it's the new millenium!

WarrenMarch 25, 2005 8:01 PM

Nylarthotep wrote: "Would you rather that nothing be done and a real dirty bomb be exploded in a large city?"

Since there have been rather few dirty-bomb detonations in large cities as a result of our previously lax attitudes toward cancer patients, you totally lack correlation. You're making an argument based on -zero- evidence, in response to an -unknown- threat.

No one knows how many dirty bombs might be stopped by such detectors, nor, more importantly, how many dirty bombs might not be detected at all. No one knows if the detectors are properly suited for this purpose, or whether, as it appears, they just piss off cancer patients.

You're treading on a slippery slope. Why not go ahead and plaster the entire city with radiation detectors? Why not give every man, woman and child a handheld detector and a hotline to which they can efficiently tattle on their neighbors, co-workers, and roommates? I'm sure there'd be far fewer dirty bombs around. Not that zero's any smaller than zero or anything, but, hey -- it's a worthwhile precaution, right?

"If you'd rather not have the harassment of the police reacting to this, then the person getting the treatment should stay home."

Oh, I see. So the cancer patient ought not to consider such pastimes as purchasing groceries or picking up their children from school. They should just accept that their illness has cast them into a new socioeconomic class that does not engender them with such rights as leaving their homes. After all, they're cancer patients, why on earth would they need to leave their homes? Don't they know their very existence is interfering with our continual crusade against the -very real- threat of a dirty bomb?!

Sure, cancer is the number one killer of people in the developed world, claiming approximately one in four of us in the end. That doesn't mean we should give 'em human rights or anything -- it's the new millenium!

NylarthotepMarch 28, 2005 6:22 AM

Warren,
I never stated anything about a need nor desirability of widespread posting of detectors to stop dirty bombs. Maybe I wasn't clear. Or more likely you are over reacting.

My statement was to point out that if an indicator or a potential threat occurs, then taking action is a reasonable reaction. Doing nothing merely ensures that a threat will turn into an incident.

As to zero evidence, that is just ludicrous. Every day people make judgements and reactions to security scenarios with little or no information. Trying to predict potential attack vectors is what security personnel are supposed to do and putting in place countermeasures is precisely what security is about.

As to the "Harassment" of cancer patients, We all deal with inconvinience in our lives. (I suppose I could have called it something else, but the discussion seems to be that this is harassment and not just an inconvinience.) If you see the reactions of the police as Harassment, you can avoid it by not going out. You then make the decision based on what you are willing to risk by going out and having a slight probability of setting off a detector on a fire engine. The likelihood of your actually being "Harassed" is quite low seeing as there are no systems in place to detect random movement of radiological isotopes. You indeed have the right to go out of your house at any time you wish. But you don't have the right to take other peoples rights to life away for your convinience. The society makes, or attempts to make a balanced decision on the benefits of a security measure against the costs. If the costs are prohibitive, then it's not done. That is exactly why there are no radiation detectors placed on every street corner. On the other hand, if a person is detected as in this scenario, and the police take no actions, as it appears you are condoning, would be requiring irresponsible actions from those people who are trying to ensure public saftey.

Crusade against a dirty bomb? Where do you see this? I don't see any indication of any systematic works to detect any type of radological threat in all venues. The only one I've seen is related to ports. I don't see how you relate this discussion with the stripping of human rights from anyone. Being inconvinienced is not being tortured.

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