GAO: DonÆt rush purchase of nuke detection equipment
A congressional watchdog agency told lawmakers in a report publicly released this week that the Department of Homeland Security should not rush a program to bring on new nuclear materials detection equipment to the nation's ports until more testing is done.
Since 2005, DHS's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) has developed and tested advanced spectroscopic portals (ASP) to both detect radiation and identify the source hidden in containerized shipments and other cargoes. The DNDO hopes to use the new portal monitors to replace at least some of the earlier polyvinyl toluene (PVT) portal monitors and handheld detection devices currently in use in the ports.
The new standard ASP's 'lifecycle' cost is about $825,000 apiece, compared to about $305,000 each for the PVT standard cargo portals. However, Government Accountability Office investigators, who reviewed DHS test results of the ASPs so far, don't believe the new technology is much more effective yet at detecting lightly shielded highly enriched uranium or plutonium then the existing PVTs, raising concerns among lawmakers about the proposed $2 billion cost of the agency's overall radiation portal monitor deployment, which includes both ASPs and PVTs.
In addition, GAO noted that DNDO must still field test the ASP's effectiveness and suitability at four northern and southern border crossings and two seaports, as well as await the conclusion of an independent evaluation conducted by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate at one of the seaports.
'Even if ASPs are able to reduce the volume of innocent cargo referred for secondary screening, they are not expected to detect certain nuclear materials that are surrounded by a realistic level of shielding better than PVTs could,' GAO warned.
Customs and Border Protection officials told GAO investigators that if DHS approves the ASP deployment that they anticipate the discovery of problems with the equipment as soon as it arrives in the field.
'Integration testing uncovered a number of such problems, which delayed testing and resulted in ASP vendors making multiple changes to their systems,' GAO said. 'Correcting such problems in the field could prove to be more costly and time consuming than correcting problems uncovered through testing, particularly if DNDO proceeds directly from certification to full-scale deployment, as allowed under the congressional certification requirement that ASPs provide a significant increase in operational effectiveness.'
The GAO recommended two actions in its report to 'ensure a sound basis for a decision on ASP certification,' including:
' Assessing whether ASPs meet the criteria for a significant increase in operational effectiveness based on a valid comparison with PVTs' full performance potential, in addition to the potential to further develop PVTs' use of 'energy windowing to provide greater sensitivity to threats.'
' Revising the schedule for ASP testing and certification to allow sufficient time for review and analysis of results from the final phases of testing and completion of all tests.
'If ASPs are certified, we further recommend that the secretary of homeland security direct the director of DNDO to develop an initial deployment plan that allows CBP to uncover and resolve any additional problems not identified through testing before proceeding to full-scale deployment — for example, by initially deploying ASPs at a limited number of ports of entry,' GAO said.
DHS agreed with some of the GAO report's findings, but largely stands by its current course for testing and deploying the ASP technology.
'There is simply no way to fully anticipate and replicate all real-world problems before deployment to the field: computer modeling and simulation does not provide the same level of experience or exposure,' wrote Jerald E. Levine, director of DHS's GAO/Office of Inspector General Liaison Office, in a March 24 letter to the GAO. 'In anticipation of this fact, deployment will be accomplished in phases, starting with a small number of low-impact locations. As the issues with the system are corrected, we will gradually build up to wider deployment.'
'It is disappointing to learn that the next-generation of ASP system provides only a slight improvement in detection performance,' Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said in a Washington Post article on Tuesday. 'That's why (DHS) Secretary (Janet) Napolitano is right to hold back on ASP certification and to seriously consider a new approach.' ' Chris Gillis