Next-generation machines for detecting radiation in large ocean containers, trucks and other conveyances are still being pursued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but spelling out expectations and establishing better evaluation criteria have taken precedence over rushing to acquire the technology, according to an official involved in the process.
The development of Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) monitors has largely continued out of public view since the Bush administration made an aggressive push to deploy the machines as a secondary layer of defense if a shipment triggered an alarm by traditional radiation portal monitors.
Virtually all inbound sea containers and trucks that exit a U.S. port of entry must first pass through a radiation portal monitor (RPM) that can detect the presence of radiation to prevent terrorists from smuggling a nuclear or radiological device into the country. The machines are relatively effective, but are not precise enough to differentiate between naturally occurring radiation or the radiation signature of enriched uranium that might be used in a bomb. The detection limitations result in a high number of false positives, which require extensive manpower to resolve through extra checks.
DHS under President Bush tried to quickly pursue a $1.2 billion acquisition of large-scale nuclear radiation monitors, but came under fire from the Government Accountability Office and Congress for using biased testing to promote the capability of the ASPs. They claimed DHS was moving too fast even though tests showed the new technology was no better than legacy machines at detecting lightly shielded uranium or plutonium. GAO said the testing was flawed because DHS limited the scope of 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.
Customs and Border Protection, which is responsible for operating RPMs and ensuring the safety of cargo crossing the border, also had concerns about how the sensitive technology would work in the harsh environment of ports and whether they could be deployed without disrupting normal commercial operations.
Then-Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff eventually agreed in late 2007 to postpone certification and production of advanced radiation detectors. Congress subsequently prohibited DHS from full-scale procurement of the monitors until the secretary submits a report certifying that they significantly increase operational effectiveness.
CBP is working closely with DHS' Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to better define the requirements for ASPs at ports of entry, Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for technology innovation and acquisition at CBP, said in an interview.
"This was probably another example where we thought the technology was very useful but we had not done the work to integrate the technology with the way we operate," he said.
CBP is also taking advantage of advances in technology, especially with hand-held radiation detection devices, to improve detection capability with existing types of technology, Borkowski said.
Although RPMs have difficulty detecting radiation behind lead shielding, CBP officials say they are able to compensate by pairing radiation reads with scanning devices in which lead clearly shows up as an anomaly in the X-ray image.
The enhanced detection capability buys DHS time to develop a better acquisition strategy for portal monitors, Borkowski said. - Eric Kulisch