NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Police Department is launching a mobile radiation detection system equipped with location-tracking GPS technology that it says could help avert a so-called "dirty" bomb attack.
While more than 2,000 belt-mounted radiation detectors are already used by city police, this will be the first time in the United States they will be combined with GPS technology to allow central monitoring, police spokesman Paul Browne said.
If the technology is proven in New York it could appear elsewhere in the country.
The move comes as police, ahead of the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks, continue a long-term project to permanently increase vigilance in Lower Manhattan and Midtown, home to prominent financial institutions and national landmarks.
Police see both areas as containing potentially high value targets for future attacks that could include a dirty bomb, a term used to describe a low-intensity bomb that can contaminate the area around it with radioactive material.
A newly created squad of 210 officers was being assigned to the World Trade Center site and surrounding area, parts of which are still under construction, and many will have belt-mounted detectors that can send an alert to a central command center if a spike in radiation levels is detected.
"The information that the officer is reading will simultaneously be wirelessly transmitted to this coordination center, up on a map where you can see all of Lower Manhattan," Browne said.
With the GPS technology, data from several officers could be used to triangulate the location of a stationary object or to track the direction of a moving object.
"We're also going to be putting these in fixed locations on bridges, for example," Browne said. "Eventually you have an infrastructure of tripwires that picks up on radiation."
RISKS ARE HYPOTHETICAL
The Department of Homeland Security is contributing $192 million to the effort as part of its Securing the Cities Initiative, Browne said, while New York has contributed $8 million.
Police in the surrounding metropolitan area were also receiving training and increasing coordination.
Brian Michael Jenkins, a security expert based at the RAND corporation, said that although dirty bombs were easier and cheaper to make than a full-scale nuclear bomb, they still remained largely in the realm of the hypothetical.
The most notable incident using the principles behind a dirty bomb happened in 1995, Jenkins said, when Chechen rebels alerted the Russian media to a package of radioactive cesium buried in a Moscow park.
It didn't explode, nor perhaps was it meant to, Jenkins said.
"It is truly a terror weapon in that it creates a great deal of alarm," he said. "You just put the terms radioactivity and terrorism and nuclear all together and it would really cause a great deal of alarm, and that really is the danger."
He said a dirty bomb blast could kill nearby people, while the radiative contamination it caused, depending on the material, could lead to a handful of instances of non-fatal radiation sickness.
Nonetheless, he said proving the detection technology in New York was a worthwhile exercise.
The NYPD also has upgraded its network of surveillance cameras, soon to number about 2,000, with software that can raise an alert if a camera detects suspicious activity or objects, such as an unattended package or a vehicle traveling down a street in the wrong direction.
The archived video footage can also be searched to find people matching a particular physical description.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston)