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DHS delays advanced radiation detectors for 1 year

DHS delays advanced radiation detectors for 1 year

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has quietly agreed to postpone for at least one year certification and production of next-generation radiation detection machines used in ports and other applications to check conveyances for nuclear material or weapons.

   The news about the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitors was disclosed Nov. 2 on the House Energy and Commerce Committee Web site.

   DHS has come under fire from the Government Accountability Office and Congress during the past year for using biased tests to promote the capability of ASP monitors designed to distinguish between dangerous and normal sources of radiation. The GAO claimed that DHS limited the scope of the tests to gain good results, allowed contractors to recalibrate their machines with preliminary test data to improve their detection chances, and did not conduct realistic testing in which nuclear material is shielded, as it likely would be by real-world terrorists.

   Lawmakers accused the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office of rushing to deploy the machines to meet artificial deadlines, and repeatedly requested that DHS postpone full procurement until further blind testing could be completed to determine whether the machines are reliable and cost effective.

   DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff originally planned to certify the $1.2 billion program by June and dismissed the GAO claims. He said he would convene independent experts to examine the test results and in late August agreed to extend field validations until the end of October.

   DHS wants to purchase 1,200 of the drive-by devices from Raytheon Co.-Integrated Defense Systems, Thermo Electron Corp., and Canberra Industries. It is conducting field tests with the next-generation machines at the New York Container Terminal; Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach; Laredo, Texas; and Detroit. The goal is to reduce the number of nuisance alarms and trucks that have to undergo secondary inspections. The systems initially will be deployed as a secondary checkpoint if sensors in the primary lanes trigger an alarm.

   DHS officials have bristled at suggestions that the testing was not rigorous, but Chertoff informed the committee last month that he decided to do more testing on the ASPs after the Customs and Border Protection said it encountered software problems during operational testing.

   'It appears that DHS now agrees that the ASPs had inherent weaknesses that warrant major modifications to the equipment before it can be certified and deployed,' said Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., in a letter to Chertoff.

   'DNDO's rush to deploy these ASPs is fundamentally unwarranted because U.S. Customs and Border Protection has technology which, although labor intensive, can detect radioactive materials that a terrorist might try to smuggle through our ports and borders,' said Bart Stupak, chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee.

   According to the letter, the vendors will not complete software and hardware fixes until the spring, after which new performance tests will have to be completed at the New York Container Terminal and the department’s Nevada test site, followed by operational tests at borders and ports.

   The congressman asked DHS to provide specific information about the technical problems identified by CBP, DNDO’s test plans, whether vendors failed to meet all of their contractual requirements, and whether Chertoff still plans to rely on the advice of an independent review team. ' Eric Kulisch

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