Each day on Long Island, hundreds of police officers take to the roads to protect New York City from the unthinkable.
Wearing portable radiation detectors on their belts, officers in Suffolk and Nassau counties are on the front line of stopping terrorists from carrying out the kind of attack officials fear most: the detonation of a nuclear device or a radiologic "dirty" bomb.
Officials say that Long Island, with its hundreds of miles of inlets, harbors and beachfront, and thousands of miles of roads, is a potential area for terrorists to try to smuggle a nuclear or dirty bomb into the country for a drive into the city.
"If we didn't have radiation detectors, you could drive a dirty bomb right into New York City and you wouldn't even see it," said Insp. Stuart Cameron, head of the special patrol bureau that runs the detection program for the Suffolk County Police Department, where officers use 400 detectors.
Cameron noted that terrorists involved in Sept. 11 made trips to Long Island before the attacks and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings conducted some small-arms training on Long Island.
The radiation detection mission has taken on a new urgency after President Barack Obama warned during a recent nuclear summit in Washington that the greatest threat to the world now is the use of nuclear devices by terrorists.
Looking for sources
Across Long Island and in New York City, handheld Thermo Fisher Scientific detectors regularly emit their telltale sharp, beeping alarms. Triggering the alarms are cancer patients whose radiation treatments are picked up by the detectors or emissions from industrial X-ray devices used for testing pipe welds. Using location gadgets, vehicle and boat stops - as well as an analysis of human behavior - the officers try to zero in on the source. People who appear to be emitting radiation are then approached.
"We just tell them we are detecting radiation and if they know any reason why that might be," explained Cameron about what happens when people are stopped. "Most people are very grateful."
Sgt. William Leahy, who is involved in running the detection program for the Nassau County Police Department, which is using 200 detectors, said most people are impressed. "They are very happy to see we have that capability and flattered we are asking," Leahy said.
But the federal program that pays for the detectors - "Securing the Cities" - hasn't been included in the 2011 budget, which distresses Rep. Peter King, ranking Republican on the intelligence committee.
"It would have a devastating impact on the program," said King, of Seaford. He thinks the program should be funded every year so law enforcement can buy more detectors and upgrade materials and to conduct training exercises.
Forming a partnership
The program has brought together 150 law enforcement units around New York in a partnership. Since 2007, nearly $72 million in funding to the city has provided 5,000 radiation detectors and related equipment to surrounding counties, including Suffolk and Nassau.
As Friday's guilty plea of cabdriver Zarein Ahmedzay to charges he plotted to use homemade bombs in the subway showed, New York City is a prime target for al-Qaida and its allies. That has made officials fear the catastrophic consequences of nuclear terror here.
"Nuclear terrorism is at the top of the [threat] list," New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told Newsday last week. "A click down is the dirty bomb."
A bomb, even a small 10-kiloton device, set off near Wall Street on a weekday, would likely kill tens of thousands, injure hundreds of thousands and turn lower Manhattan into a wasteland, experts say. Westbound drivers on the Long Island Expressway would be temporarily blinded by the flash, resulting in a chain reaction of traffic accidents. Radioactive fallout would spread for miles in any direction the winds took it. While dirty bombs would kill only those near the explosion, the bomb would contaminate a larger area beyond the blast and eventually cause radiation sickness for those caught in the plume of any dangerous radioactive debris.
"It can range from anywhere to a nuisance bomb spreading weakly radioactive stuff like uranium . . . at the upper end you can imagine a scenario where you are dispersing things like Cesium 137," said Charles Ferguson, a scientist with the Federation of American Scientist, referring to a deadly radioisotope.
NYPD Capt. Michael Reggio, who runs the specialized chemical, biological and nuclear countermeasures unit in the department's counterterrorism program, said New York cannot protect itself alone.
"We depend on partners," Reggio said.
Detectors help buy time
Law enforcement's outer defensive rings, he said, consist of U.S. intelligence and military operations, with closer protection provided by the Coast Guard, port security, surveillance of transportation routes, and finally the beat cops armed with detectors in the city and Long Island. Officials believe detectors form an electronic barrier that buys them time.
"Every hurdle is another chance to catch them," Cameron said.
Once radiological bombs are constructed, they can be detected by any officer wearing a detector from a half-mile away, Cameron said. To shield the device, terrorists would need thousands of pounds of material, which would make a car, truck or vessel ride low, something officers are trained to spot, Cameron explained.
When needed, police roll out larger and more discriminating detectors, which New York City is using in large numbers to find radioactive materials inside the five boroughs.
"But at that point, it is really too late," said Cameron, referring to the possibility that a suicidal bomber surrounded by the NYPD would then detonate the device. That is why detectors are needed in places like Long Island or Westchester, he said.
Radiation detectors have been used for years at major seaports and cargo terminals, including the ports in New York and New Jersey, facilities that get a lot of attention because radiation occurs naturally in stone such as kitty litter, and even bananas, which contain an isotope of potassium. Shipments constantly trip off detectors and slow down cargo inspections.
Civilian experts like Ferguson, who said detectors are useful for finding dirty bombs, said it is an open question whether the United States should put so much money into radiation detection in the future, instead of into securing nuclear materials. But other experts think safety is worth the price.
"I think some people are too quick to dismiss these efforts because they won't stop everything," said Michael Levi, an expert on nuclear terrorism with the Council on Foreign Relations. "We learn a lot by trying things, that is the value here."