By Calvin Biesecker

Deploying a next-generation radiation portal monitors for secondary screening of cargo containers at ports of entry in the United States could result in better performance versus current technologies, thereby increasing confidence in the ability to counter the threat of nuclear smuggling, the chair of an independent review panel that assessed the testing and performance of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portals (ASP) said yesterday.

“In general, we found that the hand-held systems currently used to identify radioisotopes in cargo are characterized by wide variations in performance,” George Thompson, chair of the ASP Independent Review Team (IRT), told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber Security, Science and Technology. “The ASP could–if it performs in the field as intended, and if appropriate standard operating procedures are developed–substantially reduce these variations in performance and thus reduce some key uncertainties in the nation’s ability to counter the threat of nuclear smuggling.”

Thompson is also the deputy director for plans and programs at the Homeland Security Institute, which provides the Department of Homeland Security with independent technical advice. The IRT was tasked by DHS Secretary Chertoff last summer to review the ASP program to help him make a decision on whether to certify that the new technology provides a sufficient increase in capability over current generation radiation portal monitors deployed at the nation’s points of entry.

Currently deployed portal monitors can’t distinguish between potentially threatening sources of radiation and naturally occurring radioactive materials, which results in frequent nuisance alarms, which in turn means more containers being sent off to secondary screening to resolve the alarm. Not only does this require more manpower to resolve the alarms, it slows commerce.

Thompson’s review team, which included a number of experts in the science of nuclear detection and DoD test and evaluation, also assessed the testing approach for the ASPs, which had come under fire last fall from the Government Accountability Office for being rigged by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), the DHS agency responsible for overseeing the development and production of nuclear detection equipment (Defense Daily, Sept. 19, 2007).

The IRT report found several areas where testing could be improved, including “a broader characterization of system performance and a stronger linkage between test results and operational outcomes,” Thompson said. However, while the report found the ASP test procedures used by DNDO last year to be “not ideal, we did not find any evidence that the test results were thereby biased or manipulated,” he said.

The independent panel focused on potential ASP performance in the secondary screening role in part because as of last fall DHS’ initial deployments of the systems would be for secondary inspections, Thompson said. He added that test data so far isn’t sufficient to review system performance in the primary screening role.

Vayl Oxford, director of DNDO, said limiting the review of ASP’s benefits to just the secondary inspection mode misses the economic and time benefits the technology would provide in the primary screening role.

“In the long term, DNDO and CBP expect that the greatest benefits of ASP technologies will be in these primary scanning operations, where DNDO testing at NYCT (New York Container Terminal) has already shown that ASP systems may reduce nuisance alarm rates by more than a factor of 10,” Oxford said in his prepared remarks. “A reduction of secondary referral rates of this magnitude, when averaged over the entire volume of cargo containers entering the U.S. annually, would potentially result in hundreds of thousands fewer secondary inspections required each year. The savings that the elimination of these inspections would have in the efficient processing of trade and manpower resources of CBP should not be ignored in what is argued to be a ‘system-of-systems’ analysis.”

Oxford also touched on some of the ASP test results from last year, saying the new systems demonstrated more sensitivity to representative plutonium sources and performed better than current portal monitors. He also said that current systems alarmed at higher rates than ASPs for medical and industrial isotopes, adding that CBP now wants industrial sources to be referred to secondary screening. Oxford said those revisions have been made to the ASP algorithms.

Last fall DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff postponed a decision on certifying the ASPs until later this year based on concerns of Customs and Border Protection, which will be the main users of the systems (Defense Daily, Nov. 16, 2007). CBP has said that it doesn’t have issues with the technology, only that it needs time to mature.

Oxford said yesterday that CBP’s two main concerns had to do with the operational use of the technology. The first concern was that some of the systems were taking hours to reboot after powering down instead of the one to seven minutes required depending on whether they are using natural background readings already in the system or are collecting new background. CBP also wants their supervisory computer to at each port of entry to be able to control four traffic lanes with ASPs, which is a “broadening of the requirement” from the original one lane, he said.

Three companies, Canberra Industries, Raytheon [RTN], and Thermo Fisher Scientific [TMO] have been developing their respective versions of ASP for DNDO.