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Press Releases :: November 17, 2009

Subcommittee Investigates the Ongoing Problems with Next Generation Technologies to Detect Nuclear and Radioactive Substances at Our Borders

(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight (I&O) held a hearing to examine the ongoing problems with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts to develop Advanced Spectroscopic Portals (ASPs), next generation radiation monitors, to detect and identify radiological and nuclear material entering the country.  Specifically, this hearing is a follow-up to the I&O Subcommittee hearing, The Science of Security: Lessons Learned in Developing, Testing and Operating Advanced Rations Monitors, held on June 25
In today’s hearing, the Subcommittee examined significant problems that emerged in the latest round of ASP tests conducted in July.  During those field tests, the ASPs identified dozens of phantom nuclear threats that were not there and one ASP monitor stopped working altogether but failed to alert the operator.  As a result, two dozen cargo trucks passed through the ASP radiation monitor without being scanned for nuclear or radiological threat material at all. Fortunately, because this was a test of the new ASP monitors, a current generation radiation monitor also scanned the trucks for radioactive material and found none.
“It will cost billions to deploy the newest radiation detection equipment at our ports and borders, when the existing technology still appears to be more reliable. It’s critically important to have equipment that detects radioactive materials that could be used for a nuclear bomb or a ‘dirty bomb,’ but it’s almost as important that the equipment not detect radioactive materials that aren’t there. We can’t afford to shut down our ports because our machines have the hiccups,” said Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC).
In 2002, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency started sending polyvinyl toluene (PVT) radiation portal monitors to U.S. border sites and ports to screen cargo entering the country. The PVTs are able to detect the presence of radiation but not identify the type of radiation.  If radiation is detected the cargo is sent to secondary inspection where other tools can help identify the source of radiation and determine if it is Highly Enriched Uranium, for instance, or kitty litter that gives off a harmless radioactive signature. 
The ASP program, managed by DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), was intended to provide the ability to both detect and identify radioactive sources and help speed the flow of commerce at U.S. ports of entry.  If fully deployed, the ASPs are estimated to cost $2 to $3 billion. Since 2006, the ASP program has been under inspection for failing to have clear-cut requirements, an adequate test plan, sufficient timelines, development milestones, or a transparent and comprehensive cost benefit analysis. 
In February 2009, ASPs went through a series of Field Validation Tests, which identified significant problems with the ASPs, particularly false alarms on three specific radioactive isotopes.  As a result, rather than sending fewer cargo containers to secondary inspection than the current generation PVTs, the ASPs actually sent more.
“If our border agents detect weapons-grade nuclear materials inside a truck or a cargo container, it should be a big, big deal. Frequent ‘false positives’ will disrupt the operation of our ports and border, and I worry that some border agents will eventually treat positive readings as routine,” added Miller.
For more information, visit the Committee’s website.


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