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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, said police spokesman Paul Browne.
If the technology is proven in New York it could appear elsewhere in the country.
The move comes as police, ahead of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, continue a long-term project to permanently increase vigilance in Manhattan, which police say has potential future targets for attacks that could include a dirty bomb, a low-intensity device that can contaminate the area with radioactive material.
A squad of 210 officers was being assigned to the World Trade Center site and surrounding area, parts of which are still under construction. Many officers will have 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 trip wires that picks up on radiation."
The Department of Homeland Security is contributing $192 million to the effort, 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.
"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.
But 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.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston