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Nuclear Scanning Catches a Radioactive Cat On I-5 594

Posted by kdawson
from the paging-dr.-schrodinger-line-4-please dept.
Jeff recommends Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat's story from a community meeting with Northwest border control agents. Seems their monitoring for dirty bombs from the median of Interstate 5 caught a car transporting a radioactive cat. "It turns out the feds have been monitoring Interstate 5 for nuclear 'dirty bombs.' They do it with radiation detectors so sensitive it led to the following incident. 'Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour... Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car]. The agent raced after the car, pulling it over not far from the monitoring spot.' Did he find a nuke? 'Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier.'"
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Nuclear Scanning Catches a Radioactive Cat On I-5

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  • LOL @ Privacy Tag (Score:5, Insightful)

    by QuantumFTL (197300) <justin,wick&gmail,com> on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:20AM (#22842898)
    Emitting nuclear radiation is the equivilent of shouting "hey, here, look in my vehicle. I've got something NUCLEAR!" No wonder there's no privacy. I'm sure if the vehicle was glowing no one would feel bad about them being pulled over. This just happens to glow in a very different way.
  • by KillerCow (213458) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:21AM (#22842900)
    ...until some law-abiding citizen going about his lawful business gets stopped and accosted for no reason beyond "the machine said so" during a routine blanket surveillance sweep. Enjoy the slide into a police state.
  • by timmarhy (659436) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:33AM (#22842948)
    Passivly monitoring traffic for this kind of thing is harmless, and i'm sure no one would mind as long as the agent used a little common sense and didn't immediately assume the person in the car was osama.
  • by clarkkent09 (1104833) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:47AM (#22843020)
    True, but since there are legitimate reasons for emitting radiation they should take that into account. The last thing people (or cats) undergoing radiation therapy for cancer need is to be stopped and searched on every corner
  • Re:So let's say... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by tirerim (1108567) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:57AM (#22843060)
    If you're worrying about the KGB, you should be more worried about them making you radioactive [wikipedia.org] than investigating you for already being radioactive.
  • Re:So let's say... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by piojo (995934) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:02AM (#22843072)

    1. I'm remodeling my house. I go down to Home Despot/Slowes and buy a dozen smoke detectors. Would I get pulled over for being a suspected terrorist?
    Whether they would search you without permission would be a more interesting question. I think the police are well within their rights to pull you over and ask why you're emitting radiation. After all, the constitution doesn't prevent us from being stopped and asked questions.

    2. I'm a cancer patient undergoing radiation therapy. What can be done to prevent the horror of being pulled over by the KGB? Would it be reasonable to issue "radiology patient" tags, like they issue handicapped tags for the handicapped?

    3. What is the false positive rate of such monitoring? Here, we have a cute example of a sick cat setting off a false positive. What about other incidents like this that fail to get into the newspaper?
    I'm not sure this matters. Are people's rights being trampled as a result of this monitoring? I'd feel more strongly about this story if there was mention of someone getting arrested, hassled, held, etc. On the other hand, if they detect cancer patients, they must pull people over pretty frequently, and the program may never catch a terrorist... well, good thing I'm not in politics.
  • by Wilson_6500 (896824) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:12AM (#22843116)
    The fear of a dirty bomb is not that people will die--not many would probably die from the blast, or the radiation. Dirty bombs are nothing more than panic weapons. The public is, by and large, so terrified of anything "nuclear" that a large radiation dispersal device going off in a crowded area would cause literal waves of _redoubled_ panic as soon as someone realized and communicated that the bomb had radioactive isotopes inside it. Justifiably or not, it would then be a blind panic--these people would be running from something they can't see or smell, and probably don't understand in the slightest. Now, being informed about radiation won't keep it from bringing you harm if you happen to be exposed to it, probably wouldn't be much comfort if a radioactive bomb exploded across the street, and won't give you instantaneous wind-direction and plume information; it might help to allay the fears of those who're outside the blast zone, and might help ease the process of relocating back into the contaminated region.

    Sure, they're not weapons that'll kill millions of people at a stroke, but isn't one of the common themes of life that the most striking, obvious, and dramatic dangers aren't always the ones that should merit the most respect and attention?
  • by dbIII (701233) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:14AM (#22843120)
    To make things worse a dirty bomb detector is a bit like having an Easter Bunny detector. It may create employment and the impression that something is being done to detect the kiddies but it's worth considering what phyicists think of the idea instead of various poorly educated coke-addled political advisors.
  • by Rocketship Underpant (804162) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:24AM (#22843144)
    It occurs to me that if someone actually wanted to transport a dirty bomb across the US, all they have to do is have a car a few miles ahead containing a radioactive cat, and they'll know for certain if and where there are radiation checkpoints.
  • Re:So let's say... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by David Jao (2759) <djao@dominia.org> on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:29AM (#22843168) Homepage

    3. What is the false positive rate of such monitoring? Here, we have a cute example of a sick cat setting off a false positive. What about other incidents like this that fail to get into the newspaper?
    I'm not sure this matters. Are people's rights being trampled as a result of this monitoring? I'd feel more strongly about this story if there was mention of someone getting arrested, hassled, held, etc. On the other hand, if they detect cancer patients, they must pull people over pretty frequently, and the program may never catch a terrorist... well, good thing I'm not in politics.

    The false positive rate does matter, regardless of whether or not rights are being trampled. When you conduct any sort of large scale surveillance activity, the base rate fallacy [wikipedia.org] implies that most of the triggering events will be false positives. With too many false positives, your surveillance program is worse than useless -- it wastes money that could otherwise be better used on other security initiatives.

    I know there is some emotional appeal in arguing that "if it saves even one life, etc. etc. then it's worth any amount of money" but in the real world that's just not true. In the real world, spending one billion dollars to save a life might be a bad idea if spending that same money on some other program would save two lives. In comparing the relative merits of two or more different security proposals, the false positive rate is one important factor to consider, because it affects the cost/benefit analysis.

    Of course, people's rights matter as well, because that also affects the cost/benefit analysis. Unfortunately, the American public is seemingly too dumb to perform any sort of analysis involving more than one variable. Since the false positive rate involves math, it doesn't have any political appeal at all. Hence the Republicans fixate only on the terrorists, and the Democrats when not fixating on the terrorists focus only on civil liberties to the exclusion of all else.

  • by cheater512 (783349) <nick@nickstallman.net> on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:40AM (#22843204) Homepage
    Or, if they cared about their sexual organs, they would use lead which would render the fancy detectors useless if done properly.
  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:55AM (#22843238)
    Why should I explain the details of my cancer treatment to some TSA agent? My medical history is private and should be protected by law from unnecessary disclosure.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @06:10AM (#22843266)
    The really sad thing about this story is there are over 40 million people, including kids, in America who have no medical insurance coverage whatsoever. If they have cancer they are free to die and noone cares a damn about them. There are hundreds of millions of people in the Third World getting no medical service at all for lack of doctors and poverty.

    Yet, american cats are being radiation treated and apparently no slashdotters notice how crazy that is. One of the reasons so many people worldwide are terrified by the americans. The idea of humanism and solidarity seems to be missing entirely from the anglo-saxon ethos and the media cultivates thinly veiled vulgar social-darwinist ideas.
  • by fbjon (692006) on Monday March 24, 2008 @06:23AM (#22843314) Homepage Journal
    So then, why haven't a human been caught in this net before? It seems there should be more radioactive people than cats being driven around.


    Also, the story has a slight smell of urban legend. Snopes hasn't picked it up yet, though.

  • At what cost? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Nomen Publicus (1150725) on Monday March 24, 2008 @06:35AM (#22843350)
    So, how much does it cost per year to detect radio-active cats? Wouldn't it be cheaper to put up a sign saying "Radio-active materials are monitored" and spin a lie a couple of times a year using a story such as "We detected a radio-active cat, aren't we clever?"
  • by Cow Jones (615566) on Monday March 24, 2008 @06:57AM (#22843434)
    Why should suicide bombers care if the bomb they are carrying is making them sterile?
    They're alreade en route (so to say) to enter the Darwin Awards...
  • Re:doesn't add up (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ocbwilg (259828) on Monday March 24, 2008 @06:58AM (#22843436)
    Situations like these are why these sorts of systems will never work. There are just far too many false positives. Not false positives in the sense that they detect radiation where there is none, but false positives in the sense that they detect legitimate and harmless sources of radiation but have to respond as if they found a dirty bomb. I wonder how many of the other sort of false positives they get, where the detector is tripped but they can't find any source of radiation. And how many hundreds of millions of dollars are bing spent on this monitoring?

    The worst part is, this post-9/11 monitoring has caught exactly zero dirty bombers. Sure, the article says:

    Giuliano says the point really is to catch terrorists. He says it's true that the odds of catching one here may be "a billion to one. But despite that, we have caught two." (Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who tried to sneak in at Blaine in 1997 to blow up the New York subway; and Millennium Bomber Ahmed Ressam, nabbed at Port Angeles in 1999.)

    But don't you find it odd that the only justification that the heightened surveillance post-9/11 works is based on two arrests that were made in 1997 and 1999, before the current surveillance was enacted? While we're at it, what kind of a hack journalist is the guy who wrote the article that he couldn't do some simple math with the dates and figure that out? So what we're left with is spending piles of taxpayer money to monitor and harrass our citizens with no proof whatsoever that it has a demonstrable benefit besides helping employment.
  • by SharpFang (651121) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:18AM (#22843494) Homepage Journal
    Yes, except:
    fear factor. People are deadly scared of radiation and it isn't enough to say 'the levels are harmless' to stop the panic.

    See this: http://radarmagazine.com/features/2006/12/toys-print.php [radarmagazine.com]

    "4. Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab"
    Honey, why is your face glowing? In 1951, A.C. Gilbert introduced his U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, a radioactive learning set we can only assume was fun for the whole math club. Gilbert, who American Memorabilia claims was "often compared to Walt Disney for his creative genius," had a dream that nuclear power could capture the imaginations of children everywhere. For a mere $49.50, the kit came complete with three "very low-level" radioactive sources, a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson cloud chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity.

    Called one of the most dangerous toys of all times, despite totally harmless radiation levels, yes?

    Imagine a dirty bomb made from ground depleted uranium bullets (Iraq, Afghanistan and some more have a plenty of them, just to pick up and use) goes off in Manhattan. Of course you and me know depleted uranium is called 'depleted' for a reason and you'd have to try really hard to get any results off it. But imagine how would a "Joe Average" react to the news: "Manhattan has been contaminated with slightly radioactive Uranium dust. The radiation level is entirely harmless. There is no reason to panic, the radioactive dust will not affect your health."
  • by mikelieman (35628) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:25AM (#22843530) Homepage
    "Americans don't have a right to own dangerous radioactive components. "

    I believe you misspoke, when you used the word "right" there.

    Perhaps, you meant to say, "Americans aren't PERMITTED to possess dangerous radioactive components?"

    While the "Right to Keep and Bear Property" isn't one of the explicitly enumerated ones in the Bill of Rights, the "Right to Keep and Bear Property" is the Right upon which *all* other Rights are founded.

    Without that absolute right, the notion of having any Freedom or Liberty is ludicrous.

    Yes, there's an obvious contradiction in being told that one is Free and at Liberty, but also told that they cannot own, possess or use property without obtaining prior permission from their Masters.

    My only advice is: When presented with this historical opportunity to watch a civilization fall, enjoy the show!
  • by cheater512 (783349) <nick@nickstallman.net> on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:45AM (#22843602) Homepage
    Whats sad is you American assume that the terrorists are dumb and stupid.

    9/11 happened without any indication (that anyone paid attention to anyway).
    That would indicate that you are underestimating their capabilities.
    They are usually well funded and are very determined.

    You dont need much material for a effective dirty bomb.
    It can also be transported in smaller quantities.
    That makes lead a valid option for transportation.

    You assume they wouldnt use a clean room.
    I'd say that if they knew there was a possibility of being detected then they would.
    Anyone who can get any substantial amount of radioactive material has considerable resources.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:49AM (#22843624)
    I think such a trivial infringement on our select few irradiated citizens' rights is, by far, better than risking not having any domestic nuclear security surveillance at all.

    Really? Even if the false positives are several orders of magnitude more common than any true detections? If virtually everyone stopped will be innocent, why is that such a good thing? Do we want to live in a country were we are constantly stopped and scanned by the police on the infinitesimally small chance that we are terrorists?

    Just how many nuclear bombs has this scanning found?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:59AM (#22843668)
    "The fear of a dirty bomb is not that people will die--not many would probably die from the blast, or the radiation. Dirty bombs are nothing more than panic weapons"

    So why are US politicians doing so much to increase the effects of that weapon by promoting the "mass panic" reaction?
  • by nusuth (520833) <oooo_0000us@EINS ... minus physicist> on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:09AM (#22843724) Homepage

    There are reasons to do some scanning for nuclear material, but if a few stray particles from a medical procedure is going to be enough to stop someone, there needs to be some decisions made on the sensitivity of the scanner.


    That probably can't be helped. Cats and people travel openly while real radiological bombs should be transported in a closed box with a radiation shield. In order to catch the latter, the msensitivity cannot be low.

  • Re:So let's say... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Znork (31774) on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:18AM (#22843774)
    In the real world, spending one billion dollars to save a life might be a bad idea if spending that same money on some other program would save two lives.

    Indeed. Considering that traffic has killed approximately 280.000 Americans since 9/11 one could wonder how many lives would have been saved, had the 'war on terror' money been spent on improving road safety.

    One could also question wether terrorists would find terror a useful weapon if nobody cared more than they do about traffic risks.

    I wonder what would happen if Al Qaeda claimed they'd infiltrated the safety departments of several multinational car manufacturers, as well as the DMV and a multitude of road planning commissions.
  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ChemGeek4501 (1044544) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:15AM (#22844154)
    It won't be a TSA person - it's usually state police that have portable gamma spectrometers in addition to the survey instrument that was on the road, that way they can identify the isotope if it were a gamma emitter. It's an amazingly sensitive and sophisticated system, and the folks that are usually running it are some of the brighter bulbs in the state police box.
  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:4, Insightful)

    by iCharles (242580) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:52AM (#22844448) Homepage
    HIPPA vs. Homeland Security: who will win?
  • by discogravy (455376) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:55AM (#22844468) Homepage

    Something like 14 of the 19 September 11th hijackers had no idea theirs was a suicide mission.

    ...ah, yes from the interview with the surviving hijackers...no, wait.

    source?

  • Re:So stupid... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Arccot (1115809) on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:06AM (#22845092)

    A radioactive cat that just underwent cancer treatment? A cat is not a radiological bomb. Obviously, their detectors are way too sensitive.

    SNIP

    If someone really does have a radiological weapon, all he has to do now is shield it in layers of lead to escape detection -- or have a radiological cat as a decoy.

    Not quite. An unshielded slightly radioactive cat could quite possibly produce similar radiation to a shielded highly radioactive weapon. I don't see the device as being too sensitive. It picked up an unusual source of radiation, which is it's purpose.

    As far as shielding with lead, if something is radioactive, handling it can leave traces of radiation or material. Even with shielding, it can be difficult to completely eliminate all of the radioactive signature in a car.

    Same thing with drugs. Sometimes the sniffing dog hits on the door handle, when the big payoff is shielded in the gas tank.
  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:08AM (#22845102)
    Note to self:

    Bring a bald cat when transporting nuclear materials on I-5.
  • by Varmint01 (415694) on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:27AM (#22845302)
    What's really sad is that this family is probably now on a terror watch list, even though it's obvious that it was all a mix-up. Homeland Security is so bored because there's no actual terrorism to deal with that they'll just be devoting their resources to harassing innocent people and refusing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt.

    I'm dead serious, these people are probably all having their phones warrantlessly wiretapped and their emails read by some orderly in an FBI data center.

    Can we just get over this terrorism nonsense, disband the department of homeland security, and get on with our lives?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:55AM (#22845584)

    steel in many shipping containers built in China sets it off because the chinese are recycling a lot of the steel that was in now-decommissioned nuclear reactors.

    Nice, so now we can add radiation to the list of things China is poisoning Western consumers with.
  • Re:So stupid... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by flajann (658201) <[flajann] [at] [linuxbloke.com]> on Monday March 24, 2008 @12:48PM (#22846328) Homepage Journal
    "How was the person harassed? The agent pulled him over, questioned him, then let him go. Justified, since they detected radiation source. Doesn't sound like harassment to me. If they ran up to him with guns drawn, cuffed him, questioned him for several hours, then yes, that would be harassment. "

    Justified from whose perspective? The cat? The cat's owner?

    As one who have been repeatedly been pulled over, visited, and questioned by police when I've done nothing wrong, there is no justification for intruding on the peace of mind of the innocent.

    Sorry, but unless that man actually were carrying a radiological device, bothering him is an intrusion on his peace and his life, even if they did "let him go." So does that mean that they will keep pulling him over every darn time he gets cancer treatment for his cat, or drives with his cat somewhere they have detectors? Would you want to be pulled over again and again and again when you've done nothing wrong? If that were to happen to you, would you not see that as harassment?

    We really need to revisit the Rights of the Innocent in this country. Basically, all the rights of the innocent have been systematically stripped away, made easy with your latest and greatest technologies. Perhaps you don't mind the NSA tapping your every phone calls and email correspondences and putting them through their supercomputer farms just to see if you are a terrorist or not. But I think most people would have a problem with that!

    As far as I'm concerned, if I haven't done anything wrong, then don't bug me. If you (law enforcement, NSA, Homeland Insecurity, FBI, etc.) do, you are invading my peace and my privacy as well. It IS harassment, plain and simple, and I for one will NOT stand for it. And neither should you if you care anything about your own rights.

    Perhaps you should see the Minority Report. Basically, we're talking about the same thing here.

  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tandr (108948) on Monday March 24, 2008 @01:13PM (#22846740)

    I was afraid of 2 things (1) the tools being confiscated because they could be used as weapons, and (2) the agents not knowing what they were and detaining me.
    The fact that you were thinking about it is scary enough already, don't you think? Not that I go through airport security happily singing every time recently - you stand in line and trying to think what did you forget to take out that might be strange looking or hard to explain... :(
  • by AstrumPreliator (708436) on Monday March 24, 2008 @01:57PM (#22847492)
    Henry David Thoreau said that people will get exactly the kind of government they deserve, and that is indeed what the U.S. citizens have received.

    I believe the next generation is getting exactly what their parents deserve. There seems to be about a generation of lag time between fuckup and consequence. Perhaps that's why we're losing our freedoms, we have no reason to care as it'll be our kids' problem. We certainly are a greedy species.
  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:2, Insightful)

    by __int64 (811345) on Monday March 24, 2008 @02:15PM (#22847856)
    That's great, and I'm glad this system gracefully handles medical exemptions without the need to stare down barrel of a beretta. It's apparently easy to get cards and pass through the checkpoints, but doesn't this break the system? Surely, if one can obtain weapon-grade nuclear material, one could easily obtain a medical exemption card. That's gotta be several orders of magnitude easier.
  • by Mactrope (1256892) on Monday March 24, 2008 @02:29PM (#22848096) Homepage Journal

    Radiation monitoring is useful and non invasive. Unlike real domestic spying, it only identifies things that can actually be harmful. Equipment operators have a simple purpose and can be adequately trained to distinguish real threats from false alarms but every alarm is worth following. People don't have to be identified and personal information never has to be tracked to stop threats.

    Radio isotope monitoring has long been done at borders and in waste disposal. These are last ditch portions of defense in depth to protect the public from real danger. Powerful sources are required for industry and medicine. They are supposed to be carefully tracked from creation to disposal but you can never be sure. There have been several ugly incidents outside the US and at least one where an isotope ended up smelted into something that was later caught at the US border. When everything else fails, road and garbage checks help.

    While nothing is impossible for a corrupt administration to abuse, this is not it. The real end of civil liberty comes from tracking and harassing dissidents and creating mechanism to lock them up. [arstechnica.com]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @02:47PM (#22848370)

    Yet, american cats are being radiation treated and apparently no slashdotters notice how crazy that is.
    Let me put it to you this way... so what? Not to sound insensitive or anything, but I don't know these people. I don't care about them. I probably wouldn't like them if I did know them. Sure, they don't deserve to starve, but even if I devoted my entire income to feeding the poor, it wouldn't affect even a fraction of a percent of the world's population. On the other hand, I love and care about my cats. Why shouldn't I treat them well? Why should I care more than my cats about somebody I don't know who will never have any impact on my life?

    One of the reasons so many people worldwide are terrified by the americans.
    Right, because Americans are the only people who do this. Everybody else in every country across the world lets their pets starve and die of horrible diseases because they want to give all of their food and money to African warlords.

    The idea of humanism and solidarity seems to be missing entirely from the anglo-saxon ethos and the media cultivates thinly veiled vulgar social-darwinist ideas.
    Now it's pretty obviously that you're just trolling, so I'll stop.
  • calm down people (Score:2, Insightful)

    by XLR8DST8 (994744) on Monday March 24, 2008 @03:06PM (#22848704)
    as one who firmly opposes the Patriot Act and the disintegration of privacy and civil liberties in our country, I must say that I find nothing wrong with our government checking for radioactive material. In our day and age where 99% of national security is simply 'theatre' designed to make you FEEL safe rather than actually BE safe (ahem, airport 'security'?), it's nice to know that there is a program out there that actually intends the opposite and isn't simply squandering time and taxpayer money playing mind games with us. In testing for radioactivity they are NOT conducting strip- or cavity searches nor your search engine history or phone records, nor monitoring anything, other than levels of radioactivity. This practice in & of itself is what this country NEEDS as part of REAL security. & in regards to us 'knowing' about it.. I don't care if I KNOW they are testing for radioactivity. How obnoxious that would be to be driving along the freeway to see signs saying 'warning, you are being scanned for radioactivity'. In fact I'd be more offended by that, as one could perceive that as fear-mongering and additional 'theatre' as psychological civil obedience conditioning. There's really no reason for me to know, and if our government is TRULY trying to protect me as they clearly are in this case I can objectively understand. Now, this is not to say that I don't want to know about OTHER types of surveillance, especially video, or believe that other types of surveillance, especially warrantless wiretapping, aren't intrusive, unconstitutional, and really just ways for introduce new domestic control under the guise of national security. I'm just saying in the case of radioactive material, hell, do you really need to know? Do you really care?

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