By Roger McKinney
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Since January, trucks coming through the eastbound weigh station on Interstate 44 in Joplin have been monitored for unsafe levels of radiation.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol says the state received the advanced spectroscopic portal radiation monitor through an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security. It’s the only one in the state, said highway patrol Capt. Tim Hull.
There has been no initial cost to the state.
The weigh station was selected because of the high level of truck traffic coming through the location, including a lot of it coming from out of state, according to the highway patrol.
Hull said the monitor is advanced and can distinguish between safe levels of radiation in trucks and unsafe levels. He said some trucks transport medical equipment that have some radiation, and a certain level of radiation occurs naturally with other types of cargo, including bananas.
He said if the monitor were to detect an unsafe level of radiation, the commercial vehicle inspectors on-site would receive immediate notification.
Highway patrol Sgt. Mike Watson on Friday said those on duty would have many options, depending on the threat level.
“We call whatever resources we need,” Watson said.
He said drivers simply drive under the monitor, with no delay or inconvenience.
“It’s a public safety issue,” Hull said. “It’s to make sure radiation is at a safe level to be traveling on highways.”
He said it also could stop terrorists with nuclear material.
$850,000 COST, INSTALLATION
Truck driver Conrado Martinez, of Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday said he had never encountered one of the monitors before in his travels. He said he didn’t know what it was.
“This was my first time seeing one,” he said.
The state hasn’t paid anything for the monitor, but Homeland Security paid $450,000 for it, plus another $400,000 for installation and the first-year maintenance.
The state and Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office are cooperating on the project. Missouri is one of four states with which Homeland Security has the cooperative research and development agreements.
The system has been installed under the one-year agreement, after which the agency and the state will discuss the transfer of the system and maintenance costs.
A Dec. 30, 2010, Congressional Research Service report lists annual maintenance costs at between $65,000 and $100,000 per unit.
Defense contractor Raytheon is the manufacturer.
The Government Accountability Office in 2006 issued a report that the agency didn’t provide a sound analytical basis for deploying the monitors. The GAO issued another critical report in September 2008, stating that the agency provided little information about the performance of the monitors.
The Congressional Research Service report also mentioned critics outside of government who said the monitors aren’t a sufficient defense.
“These critics cite that nuclear material can be shielded or divided into amounts too small to be detected,” the report reads.
Suzanne Henkels, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, defended the program.
“The Department of Homeland Security is committed to collaborating with state and local law enforcement to build a safer, more secure and more resilient nation,” Henkels said in an email to the Globe. “Through the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, DHS is responsible for implementing the domestic portion of the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture, which provides a layered defense against nuclear and radiological threats.”
The Dec. 30, 2010, Congressional Research Service report noted difficulty in doing a cost-benefit analysis of the program because of the problem of placing a value on the benefit of preventing a nuclear or radiological attack.