Nuclear Scientist, GAO Question Effectiveness of Next Generation Radiation Detectors

By Matthew Harwood

The federal government's plans to buy and deploy the next generation of radiation detectors at U.S. borders were harshly criticized this morning by a prominent scientist as well as questioned by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Thomas B. Cochran, Ph.D., a senior nuclear scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., told [pdf] the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs that new Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) monitors aimed at preventing the smuggling of nuclear materials into the United States were not cost-effective and would not increase the detection of harmful radiological materials any more than the current monitors. He said additional ASP monitors shoud not be bought.

The GAO reports [pdf] ASPs cost almost double of what current radiation detection monitors do—$800,000 compared to $425,000 respectively. And in its September report, the GAO said [pdf] that the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office's plan to equip U.S. ports of entry with radiation detection equipment, including ASPs, will likely cost $3.1 billion from 2007 to 2017—or almost 50 percent overbudget from DNDO estimates released in March. The DNDO is  responsible for developing and procuring new technologies to detect nuclear smuggling.

The move to ASPs, however, has occurred because "current screening operations appear to be swamped with false alarms," said [pdf]Dr. Richard L. Wagner, Jr., who works part-time with Los Alamos National Laboratory and chairs the Nuclear Defense Working Group.

The radiation detection monitors in operation today use polyvinyl toluene (PVT), which can detect radiation but do not differentiate between harmless radiological substances and more sinister substances.

Such false alarms slow down commerce at U.S. ports of entry. If a current radiation detection monitor sounds an alarm when a vehicle or a cargo container passes through it, everyone and everything associated with that alarm must go for secondary inspection where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers use a hand-held detection device to distinguish between harmful and unharmful materials.

CBP's Thomas S. Winkowski, assistant commissioner of field operations, said [pdf] CBP officers have between 400 and 600 false alarms every weekday at the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach. According to the Associated Press, officials says deploying ASPs should reduce false alarms to a more manageable 40 to 50 a day.

"ASPs offer the potential to detect radiation and identify the source, reducing the need for secondary screenings of cargo containing benign radioactive materials," Gene Aloise, the GAO's director of Natural Resources and Environment, told [pdf] lawmakers.

ASPs do this by "by collecting spectroscopic data that is automatically analyzed to identify the isotopic content of the radioactive source," said [pdf] Vayl S. Oxford, director of the DNDO at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "This isotopic information is the key to distinguishing between threat and innocent objects."

Winkowski said ASPs ability to detect harmful radiological materials will allow him to devote more staff and resources to high-risk shipments and other border security initiatives.

However, the ASPs effectiveness at correctly identifying harmful radiological materials has been questioned by both Cochran, in an investigation printed in Scientific American with colleague Matthew G. McKinzie, and by the GAO, in multiple reports and testimonies.

Cochran told lawmakers that neither ASPs nor current detection monitors can detect highly enriched uranium (HEU) wrapped in shielding, like lead, that absorbs radiation.

"A crude nuclear device constructed with [HEU] poses the greatest risk of mass destruction by terrorists," he said.

Cochran did, however, state that ASPs may have the potential to reduce the false alarm rate associated with PVT radiation portal monitors. Nevertheless, he noted "I am unaware of any analysis that demonstrates that reducing false alarm rate using ASPs is cost-effective."

In the first of two reports, the GAO in 2006 told the DNDO that its cost-benefit analysis of ASPs did not justify purchasing  and deploying these machines at their estimated price tag of $1.2 billion because, according to Aloise, "DNDO relied on assumptions of the anticipated performance level of ASPs instead of actual test data."

The GAO also disagreed with the DNDO's assessment of ASPs because it concentrated on whether the machines would relieve commerce delays and not on whether ASPs could misidentify or miss altogether radiological material. In reaction to its findings, the GAO recommended that DNDO do additional testing before purchasing more ASPs.

However, in September 2007, the GAO criticized [pdf] the DNDO once again, telling lawmakers that DNDO's ASP testing "used biased test methods that enhanced the apparent performance of the ASPs and did not test the limitations of the ASP's detection capabilities."

The cost and performance issues identified by the GAO led Congress to require DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to certify that ASPs will lead to a "significant increase in operational effectiveness" before full-scale purchase of the machines. The GAO, however, says the criteria DHS agreed on to measure the increase "set a low bar for improvement."

"The criteria," says Aloise, "leave open the possibility of a Secretarial decision in favor of certification even if ASPs do not provide a significantly higher probability of detection compared with current generation PVTs when deployed for primary screening and only a small reduction in the time required for secondary screening."

Instead of purchasing more ASPs, Cochran recommends the United States do more to cut off HEU at its source and propose an international ban of its civil use.

Otherwise, Cochran says the "United States is spending billions of dollars on 'scarecrows,' hoping the deployment of these ineffective systems will convince the birds to fly to a different field."


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