By Calvin Biesecker

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, said 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, testified at the Senate hearing. 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 said.

"Closing the gaps is a major challenge because the United States has over 6,000 miles of land borders with many locations outside of established ports of entry where people and vehicles can enter," Aloise said. "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." An issue at airports is that there are no natural chokepoints to install fixed radiation portal monitors, Aloise said. As for freight rail, he said trains can be two miles long, making it difficult to pull individual cars out if they have alarmed.

The GAO official also said that "dangerous quantities of nuclear material" can be packaged so that they can be smuggled into the United States by vehicles, pedestrians, private planes and small boats.

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 said. "It’s made too little progress in its major mission, which is the development of a Global Nuclear Detection Architecture."

Moreover, Lieberman said, 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. That’s too late, he indicated. "The time for multi-year studies is over," he said. "The time for urgent action really is now."

Aloise also blamed 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 said. "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 radiation portal monitors 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 current-generation 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 said.

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

Lieberman said that DNDO had been invited to yesterday’s hearing but was not prepared yet to discuss its way forward. A second hearing has been set for July 21 that will include DNDO, he said.

Dana Shea, a specialist in Science and Technology with the Congressional Research Service, testified that developing the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture 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 said that when ASP development began four years ago the agency wasn’t talking with other agencies in the federal government.

Aloise said that GAO believes that while it will be difficult to close gaps in the nuclear detection architecture, baseline defenses can be established in other areas, such as for freight trains. He noted 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 (Defense Daily, March 3). Nonetheless, the program must still get through the final stages of development and testing, which has proved 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 before deployment.