Leaked GAO Report Criticizes ASP Radiation Detection Machines

By Matthew Harwood

The federal government's plan to deploy advanced screening machines to detect radioactive materials entering the country has been sharply criticized by a Government Accountability Office report obtained by The Washington Post.

 The project, involving three contractors, has been embroiled in allegations that the [Department of Homeland Security's (DHS)] Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) misled Congress about the testing, cost and effectiveness of the machines. Budget documents this year showed the cost to put the monitors at borders and ports would be far higher than the detection office originally estimated.

An audit report by the federal Government Accountability Office shows that officials in the detection office plan to deploy the machines, known as advanced spectroscopic portal monitors or ASPs, on a far more limited basis than originally planned. The new plan will focus on using the machines to monitor cargo containers, the report said.

The GAO said the cost of deploying ASPs at U.S. ports of entry could be as high as $3.8 billion over a decade but should come in around $3.1 billion. Depending on which GAO estimate you use, the project could come in either 81 percent or 48 percent over budget, respectively. The GAO report said DNDO's estimates were wrong because the office had "omitted major costs," according to the Post.

The three major contractors working on the ASPs are Raytheon, Thermo Eberline, and Canberra.

Even if ASPs do make it to U.S. ports of entry, there are also concerns about the detection technologies' reliability. As Security Management reported in April, two scientists, Thomas B. Cochran and Matthew G. McKinzie of the National Resources Defense Council investigated ASPs for Scientific American and found that the machines could be beaten by wrapping highly enriched uranium (HEU) in lead. Cochran and McKinzie worry that terrorists could smuggle small amounts of HEU into the country to construct a larger, more powerful radioactive bomb that could be awesome in its destructive power.


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