By Calvin Biesecker

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency that will use the next generation of radiation portal monitors to scan cargo entering the country, expects that the operations and maintenance (O&M) costs of the new systems will be higher than existing technology but the savings in manpower expected through the use of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portals (ASPs) are unknown for now, an agency official told Congress yesterday.

“The ASP systems, depending on the final outcome of the cost-benefit [analysis] and the cost of the systems, I think it’s well accepted that it’s going to cost more than what we have with the PVT (polyvinyl toluene) [radiation portal monitors],” Todd Owen, acting deputy assistant commissioner within CBP’s Office of Field Operations, told the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.

Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), a member of the subcommittee, said the estimated O&M costs associated with supporting the ASP systems are between five and 12 times higher than the costs of maintaining the current PVT technology. The “worst case” estimates run as high as $100,000 per year to support the ASP systems versus $8,000 for the PVT systems, she said. “Does Customs have the budget to support this kind of system if it were deployed nationally and have you thought about what you would have to give up in terms of personnel or other equipment?” she asked Owen.

“There’s much talk about the initial acquisition cost and the deployment cost to buy it and put it in the ground, but I don’t think we can forget about the operations and maintenance tail that comes along with this that will then fall on the backs of the operator, in this case CBP,” Owen said. “So it is something that we are concerned with and is going into the overall cost adjustments for what we can expect with the ASP system.”

The unit costs of the ASP systems are estimated at around $822,000 compared to the $308,000 price for a PVT system.

CBP currently has 1,250 PVT-based radiation portal monitors deployed at the nation’s land and seaports of entry and expects that number to increase to 1,500 by the end of 2009. The systems are used to scan nearly every cargo container and other vehicles entering the country daily.

The ASP program began several years ago within the Department of Homeland Security as an effort to produce detectors that could better discriminate between potential threat radioactive materials and naturally occurring radioactive materials inside cargo containers, something the PVT systems can’t do. That lack of discriminatory capability in the primary screening role leads to frequent referrals for secondary screening, which is done either by another PVT or a handheld radiation identification device.

At the Port of Long Beach in California, there are between 400 and 600 secondary referrals daily, and it takes a crew of 100 CBP officers over three work shifts to sort out those alarms, Owen said. He expects that the ASP savings will allow for a manpower savings here and a related cost savings, “but I think the cost savings are something that we still need to measure once we are confident that the ASPs are delivering as we hope they will do….Will that offset the increased operations and maintenance costs associated with the ASP? That’s something that we have to take very careful consideration of.”

CBP’s ability to successfully resolve the alarms from the PVT systems has prevented any slowdown in commerce, Owen said. In addition to reducing secondary referrals, CBP also expects the ASP systems to be able to “reduce the possibility of a missed threat,” he said.

Yesterday’s hearing examined two reports released this week on the ASP program, one from the Government Accountability Office and the other from a branch of the National Academies of Science (Defense Daily, June 23 and June 25). Both reports indicated that the testing program for the ASP systems has improved. However, the GAO said the new technology has shown only marginal improvements over the PVT systems and the National Academies of Science said that for now the costs of moving forward with the ASP systems outweigh any benefits.

The ASP program is managed by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) within DHS. The program remains on track to go before Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano this fall for a certification decision that the new systems offer a significant benefit in operational effectiveness over the PVT system, William Hagan, acting deputy director of DNDO, testified. However, in his prepared remarks, he pointed out that the certification milestone is just a step in the acquisition process, one where Napolitano would declare that the ASP is “‘better than'” the current system, he said.

If Napolitano gives the okay, the DHS acquisition oversight process must still be cleared, Hagan said.

One of the important data sets that DNDO is still piecing together is the cost-benefit analysis of going forward with ASP. It was preliminary information on the cost-benefit analysis being done by DNDO that was the basis of the National Academies of Science finding that ASP costs currently outweigh benefits. Hagan said the analysis continues.

Two companies are developing ASP systems for DNDO, which is also responsible for procuring the systems before handing them off to CBP. The companies are Raytheon [RTN] and Thermo Fisher Scientific [TMO].

One of the company’s systems entered field validation testing this year but that effort was halted because the ASP sent more cargo for secondary screening than the PVT system. Hagan said this was “not surprising” given the fact that it was the first time an ASP has been used in real operations. He said adjustments have been made to sensitivity thresholds, not software.

Information release by the oversight committee yesterday said the contractor “has reportedly corrected the software issue and intends to return the ASPs to field validation testing next month.” Field validation testing will be followed by initial operational testing and evaluation to be conducted by DHS’ Science and Technology branch.

The other contractor’s ASP system had trouble last fall during integration testing, which precedes field validation testing, due to software issues that led to a halt. That problem was corrected late in 2008 and the contractor expects to complete that round of testing and enter field validation testing in August, the committee says.