Gaps remain in the nation’s nuclear detection system in large part because the Homeland Security agency charged with developing and purchasing detection technology has over emphasized a single program designed to better screen containers and vehicles for radiation at the expense of developing a federal-wide plan for a Global Nuclear Detection Architecture, a key Senator and a Government Accountability Office (GAO) official said yesterday.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) has made substantial progress in scanning for potential nuclear threats entering the United States at its land ports of entry and major seaports but the troubled development of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) “has drained resources from other programs” such as mobile and handheld technologies that could screen cargo inbound on rail cars and international aviation, says Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is only in the early stages of development with regard to plugging the gaps in the detection architecture, Gene Aloise, director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, tells the Senate panel. These gaps include the land borders between the ports of entry, international commercial and general aviation, and small maritime vessels for recreation and fishing, he says.

“Closing the gaps is a major challenge because the United States has over has over 6,000 miles of land borders with many locations outside of established ports of entry where people and vehicles can enter,” Aloise says. DNDO has been acquiring portable radiation detection devices to give Border Patrol agents the means to detect radiation between the land ports of entry, but a lack of funding has prevented the agency from meeting its purchase targets, he says.

“Also, according to the Coast Guard, small boats pose a greater threat for nuclear smuggling than shipping containers because among other things there are at least 13 million pleasure craft and 110,000 fishing vessels in the U.S.,” Aloise says.

An issue at airports is that there are no natural chokepoints to install fixed radiation portal monitors, Aloise says. For now DNDO’s plans to screen 99 percent of air cargo at 33 international airports by 2014 are on hold, he says. As for freight rail, he says trains can be two miles long, making it difficult to pull out individual cars if they have alarmed. The agency is currently conducting a rail threat and gap analysis, although implementing the results will be dependent on adequate funding, Aloise says.

The GAO official also says that “dangerous quantities of nuclear material” can be packaged so that they can be smuggled into the U.S. by vehicles, pedestrians, private planes and small boats.

And it’s apparent that the material that could be used to make a least a “dirty bomb” may be available. Citing a database kept by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Lieberman says that since 2007 there have 1,340 “confirmed incidents of smuggling” related to materials that could be used in a dirty bomb.

“And of those cases, 18 involved the smuggling if highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the material that is critical to the actual making of an atomic weapon,” Lieberman says.

DNDO Needs ‘Retooling’

Given the existing detection gaps and that DHS has “no plans” to scan commercial aviation, “it’s just inescapable to conclude that DNDO requires real retooling and quickly,” Lieberman says. “It’s made too little progress in its major mission, which is the development of a Global Nuclear Detection Architecture.”

Moreover, Lieberman says, DNDO appears to realize its lack of progress given that it is seeking $13 million in FY ’11 for additional strategic studies over several years.

Too late, he says. “The time for multi-year studies is over. The time for urgent action really is now.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), the ranking member on the committee, says she is “disappointed” in the agency’s progress, adding that it has “fallen short” in its responsibility of with taxpayer dollars.

Aloise also blames DNDO’s “failed four-year effort” to develop the ASP on its inability to reach a consensus with its federal partners on a nuclear detection architecture and moving to close the gaps within the architecture.

“In short…because it had no plan to follow, DNDO took its eye off the ball,” Aloise charges. “Instead, DNDO focused on replacing current equipment with questionably performing ASPs in areas where a detection system was already in place.”

The detection systems in place are the current generation polyvinyl toluene (PVT)-based radiation portal monitors (RPMs) that cover 100 percent of the land ports of entry and over 99 percent of the country’s major seaports.

So far 1,400 of the PVT RPMs are deployed, about two-thirds of the planned total.

Now that DHS has made the ports of entry more secure, the gaps in the detection system are “more attractive for would be smugglers or terrorists,” Aloise says.

Given constrained budgets DHS needs to develop a strategic plan “that prioritizes the gaps in the detection system and allocate resources accordingly,” Aloise says. DNDO has said that the strategic plan will be ready this fall, Lieberman notes.

Upcoming Hearing

DNDO was invited to the recent hearing but was not prepared yet to discuss its way forward, according to Lieberman. A second hearing has been set for July 21 that will include DNDO, he says.

DHS is supposed to submit to Congress each March a report on DNDO’s evaluation if technologies that are used in the domestic portion of the nuclear detection architecture, says Dana Shea, a specialist in Science and Technology with the Congressional Research Service. So far though reports have only been issued in June 2008 and in Jan. 2010, with the latter being the most comprehensive and integrated, which discusses DNDO’s efforts at strategic planning and metrics to measure how well the global architecture is being implemented, he says.

However, “The report does not address whether agencies shaped the reported budgets to align with GNDA (Global Nuclear Detection Architecture) priorities,” Shea says. Moreover, the report was submitted nearly a year later than required so its “timeliness may be brought into question,” he adds.

Shea tells the panel that developing the GNDA is a difficult coordination challenge for DNDO. While DNDO has the authority to work with other federal agencies in the crafting of the architecture, Aloise says that when ASP development began four years ago the agency wasn’t talking with other agencies in the federal government.

Lieberman asked the panelists if maybe the coordination role for the GNDA should be given to a higher authority. Collins, however, says such a position exists in the White House, which is the Coordinator for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism, which was established in 2007, but has remained vacant.

“I don’t think the problem is the need for the creation of a new position, I think the problem is that this position has not been filled,” she says.

Aloise says that GAO believes that while it will be difficult to close gaps in the nuclear detection architecture, baseline defenses can in established in other areas, such as for freight trains. He notes that DNDO originally said that ASP could be used to screen rail cars although the agency now says the technology can’t be used for this purpose.

Earlier this year DHS made a decision to continue developing the ASP technology but to limit planned deployments for secondary rather than primary screening purposes. Nonetheless, the program must still get through the final stages of development and testing, which has proven to be troublesome over the years, and then go through a cost benefit analysis to determine if purchasing the systems is worth it versus continued reliance on existing radiation portal monitors and handheld identifiers. The Secretary of Homeland Security would still need to certify the system prior to deployment.