By Calvin Biesecker

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has decided to discontinue its efforts to develop next-generation radiation portal monitors for primary screening applications while continuing development of the technology for secondary screening and plans to resume field validation testing early this summer, according to an official with the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).

That decision dramatically reduces the cost of the program, estimated at around $350 million to purchase, install and maintain between 200 and 300 Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) systems over 10 years for secondary screening. The 10-year life-cycle cost for the ASP systems in primary screening is pegged at about $1.5 billion, according to DNDO.

The actual per unit cost to purchase and install an ASP system is around $800,000.

The decision to limit the focus of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) program was made by a DHS panel that included officials from the acquisition, policy and deputy secretary offices, DNDO, the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which will be the ultimate user of the screening systems.

If the upcoming field validation testing goes well, which should take several months, then ASP would likely move into the Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) phase, which is conducted by S&T, William Hagan, acting director of DNDO, told Defense Daily yesterday. He doesn’t believe OT&E would take that long to complete because a lot of operational data from previous field validation testing at four ports has already been captured as well as nuclear detection data from testing at the Nevada Test Site although S&T will determine the duration.

Once OT&E is completed, data from that would help feed into a cost benefit analysis that must still be done to help determine if deploying the ASP systems is worth it versus continuing to rely on the existing polyvinyl toluene (PVT)-based radiation portal monitors and handheld radioisotope identification devices currently used for secondary screening. If all of that is successful then the program would likely go before the DHS Acquisition Review Board (ARB) for a decision to deploy ASP for secondary screening, Hagan said. After the ARB decides, the Secretary of Homeland Security would still need to certify that ASP is the way to go for secondary screening.

In a Feb. 24 letter to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Hagan said that the ASP currently meets both criteria for providing “a Significant Improvement in Operational Effectiveness” versus the PVTs. While testing so far has “shown that the ASP systems meet these criteria by wide margins,” the criteria still have to be measured in the operational testing, he said in the letter.

The Washington Post originally reported on the DNDO letter and the decision by DHS to keep ASP focused solely on secondary screening for now.

One of the criteria is that the ASP must exceed by at least a factor of two a reduction in the probability of misidentifying special nuclear material versus the handheld devices currently used in secondary screening. That has been accomplished and, in some cases, ASP has reduced the probability of misidentifying special nuclear material by a factor of 10, Hagan told Defense Daily.

The other criterion is being able to complete the secondary screening faster than with the handheld devices. While it takes at least five minutes for an operator to use a handheld identification device on a container, a container can be driven through an ASP in 20 to 30 seconds, just like a PVT-based system. Still, this has to be proven in OT&E, Hagan said.

DNDO awarded contracts to three companies in July 2006 to develop, test, and produce their respective ASP systems. These were Canberra Industries, part of France’s AREVA Group, Thermo Fisher Scientific [TMO], and Raytheon [RTN]. At the time DHS had hoped to buy about 1,400 ASPs at a total cost of around $1.2 billion.

Since then, Canberra has been dropped from the program. Raytheon’s ASP system has gone through two rounds of field validation testing, although the results were mixed and that problems in the program were persisting. Thermo’s system has not progressed beyond integration testing, which occurs before field validation testing. It will be Raytheon’s system that begins the next round of field validation testing in the coming months.

The National Academy of Sciences and Government Accountability Office have documented the ASP program’s difficulties over the past few years. In field validation testing conducted in early 2009, Raytheon’s system produced more false alarms than the PVT system it was paired with (Defense Daily, Nov. 17, 2009). In subsequent tests last summer, the ASP system reduced the number of false alarms compared to the PVT system. However, the July 2009 tests showed continued problems with ASP. In those tests, the system identified some cargo as containing special nuclear material when there wasn’t any.

The ASP program was begun to improve the performance over the current PVT-based drive-through radiation monitors, which can’t distinguish between threat material and naturally occurring radioactive material. ASP is being developed not only to detect radiation but with better radioisotope identification than the handheld devices used by CBP officers at land and seaports in the United States.

Lieberman, responding to Hagan’s letter, said in a statement this week that he was disappointed in the time lost to developing the ASP systems for primary screening and that the expectations for the system have not been met.