DHS overhyped advanced radiation detectorsÆ effectiveness, Post says
Deployment of advanced radiation detection monitors, designed to become the lynchpin of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s cargo security strategy, likely will continue to be delayed by performance problems and questions about whether the department misled Congress about the system’s effectiveness, according to a front-page report in the Washington Post.
Last July, DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) awarded a $1.16 billion contract to three companies to develop and test next-generation sensor technology for detecting radiation in full containers and truck trailers.
Congress allowed the procurement to move ahead after DHS said the devices could detect highly enriched uranium 95 percent of the time. But auditors from the Government Accountability Office last year determined that detection rates for the machines were as low as 17 percent and no higher than about 50 percent.
In a damning report last October, the GAO criticized the department’s cost-benefit analysis on the grounds that it was based on assumptions instead of data from its own performance tests and didn’t justify a procurement decision.
On Friday, the Post reported that the GAO told Congress last week that DHS officials did not follow their own guidelines for ensuring that the cost-benefit analysis was accurate and complete. The GAO also said that DNDO Director Vayl Oxford was incorrect when he testified in March that he was not aware of any specifics about whether officials followed the guidelines. The GAO report is expected to be made public next month.
Oxford, interviewed by the Post, defended the high detection rate cited in the report to Congress last year as a “high-water goal” the agency hoped to achieve, not an assessment of the monitor’s capabilities. He said recent tests of the monitors in the Port of New York-New Jersey show a “dramatic decrease” in false alarms. Eight monitors will be deployed at four border crossings and ports for further performance tests this week, he added.
Congress ordered the cost-benefit analysis after the GAO raised concerns that the next-generation radiation detectors were no better than current technology being used at ports of entry.
The government is deploying hundreds of drive-through radiation portal monitors at U.S. seaports and border crossings, as well as a select few foreign ports. But the current technology is limited by a high rate of false alarms because it cannot distinguish between naturally occurring radiation such as found in bananas, granite or ceramic tile, and fissile material such as highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. Customs officers resolve false alarms by pulling over trucks to a second detection gate and finally using handheld isotope identifiers to analyze the type of radiation and whether it is compatible with the product described on the manifest, all of which can cause shipment delays.
Customs and Border Protection inspectors, for example, have to resolve 350 to 400 innocuous radiation alarms on an average day at the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach, according to agency officials.
The DNDO awarded five-year contracts to Raytheon Co.-Integrated Defense Systems, Thermo Electron Corp. and Canberra Industries to develop Advanced Spectroscopic Portal machines to identify the nuclear signature of materials and rule out benign sources. The contracts include four one-year options for procurement of the machines after a base research and development year. A key part of the new technology is software that can analyze the radiation reads.
DHS subsequently placed an order for the first 80 of a planned 1,400 advanced detection equipment and installed some of them at the New York Container Terminal at Howland Hook to conduct real-world tests of their ability to detect radiation in containers passing through the terminal.
Oxford said at the March hearing that the agency plans to procure 145 advanced radiation detection machines if the department certifies the technology. Initial deployment will be in the secondary screening area, but the machines are expected to eventually be used in primary truck exit lanes. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff was supposed to make a decision on whether to go to full production in June, but has not done so yet.
Oxford told the Post that the contracts for the project were written in a way to give his office flexibility to continue studying the performance of the monitors before they were deployed. He defended last year’s cost-benefit report as a “preliminary” document that did not mean his office was prepared to authorize full production.
The new systems cost more than $350,000 compared to $180,000 per unit for the current technology, according to Oxford, although the GAO has questioned the stated acquisition costs for the program.