DHS Gives Up On $230 Million Program for Advanced Cargo Radiation Detectors

A truck drives through an example of an Advanced Spectroscopic Portal.

Homeland Security Cancels Troubled Radiation Detector Effort (Global Security Newswire):

The U.S. Homeland Security Department has terminated the program to develop the next generation of radiation detection monitors, a senior agency official announced on Tuesday.

“The [Advanced Spectroscopic Portal] will not proceed as originally envisioned. We will not seek certification or large-scale deployment of the ASP,” Warren Stern, director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, told the House Homeland Security technology subcommittee.

The agency spent roughly $230 million over five years attempting to develop and field the monitor system. The machines were designed to not only detect radiation but identify the nature of its source. Proponents claimed the devices, each with a price tag of around $822,000, would eliminate time-consuming secondary inspections to determine whether a material was dangerous.

Homeland Security officials had expected to spend $1.2 billion to deploy 1,400 of the machines to scan cargo containers for potential nuclear or radiological weapons materials at U.S. points of entry. However, the system was found to be susceptible to false alarms and other significant technical troubles.

A recent Government Accountability Office examination concluded the program would cost Homeland Security an additional $300 million in the next four years even though the technology had not been thoroughly tested.

Instead, the department will deploy the 13 monitors that have been built and purchased to glean data that would help define requirements for a commercial competition to design and build a future spectroscopic portal, according to Stern. Four of the devices are already deployed, he noted without specifying locations.

“The benefits in making use of the money we’ve invested by learning technically from them … are worthwhile applications for the existing systems,” the DNDO chief said.

COMBATING NUCLEAR SMUGGLING: DHS has Developed a Strategic Plan for its Global Nuclear Detection Architecture, but Gaps Remain (gao.gov):

Since 2006, we have reported that DHS faces difficulties in developing new technologies to detect nuclear and radiological materials. Specifically, we have reported on longstanding problems with DNDO’s efforts to deploy advanced spectroscopic portal (ASP) radiation detection monitors. The ASP is a more advanced and significantly more expensive type of radiation detection portal monitor to replace the polyvinyl toluene (PVT) portal monitors in many locations that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency within DHS, currently uses to screen cargo at ports of entry. We have issued numerous reports regarding problems with the cost and performance of the ASPs and the lack of rigor in testing this equipment. For example, we found that tests DNDO conducted in early 2007 used biased test methods that enhanced the apparent performance of ASPs and did not use critical CBP operating procedures that are fundamental to the performance of current radiation detectors. In addition, in 2008 we estimated the lifecycle cost of each standard cargo version of the ASP (including deployment costs) to be about $822,000, compared with about $308,000 for the PVT portal monitor, and the total program cost for DNDO’s latest plan for deploying radiation portal monitors to be about $2 billion.

The Advanced Spectroscopic Portal Program: Background and Issues for Congress (OpenCRS):

Some nongovernmental critics believe that even if ASPs are better than existing radiation portal monitors at detecting and identifying radioactive material, they cannot provide a sufficient defense. These critics state that nuclear material can be shielded or divided into amounts too small to be detected and that detection equipment can be avoided by illegally entering the United States away from official ports of entry. These arguments challenge the belief that better detection systems are an effective way to protect against the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism.

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