As of now the costs of replacing existing radiation portal monitors with next-generation systems outweigh the benefits and the newer systems have only showed marginal improvements over those currently deployed, according to separate reports issued late last month from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Despite the lackluster reviews of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portals (ASP)–which are being developed to complement, if not replace, polyvinyl toluene (PVT) radiation portal monitors–the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) believes that the new systems will be ready this fall for a decision by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that they represent a significant improvement in operational effectiveness before they can enter production. Even if Napolitano certifies the ASP systems, they must still pass through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) milestone acquisition process.

The National Research Council, which is a branch of the NAS, says in an interim report that the costs of acquiring Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) monitors to replace existing radiation detection equipment outweigh any savings that would be gained through operational efficiencies using the new systems.

“Therefore a careful cost benefit analysis will need to reveal the advantages of ASPs among alternatives,” says the report, which was prepared by the Research Council’s Committee on ASPs. The committee is made up of scientists, consultants, and an official with the Port of Los Angeles. The report is sponsored by DHS.

The committee’s report is based on a cost-benefit analysis of the ASP program being performed by DNDO, the agency within DHS that is responsible for the development and procurement of radiation detection equipment. The committee says that DNDO hasn’t completed the analysis yet, which won’t be done until testing and technical evaluations are finished on the ASP systems in development, but did receive briefings on the matter last October.

In a separate report, the GAO says the ASPs show limited improvements over existing technology in primary screening applications when nuclear materials are lightly shielded and in some cases performed better than handheld radiation isotope identification devices in secondary screening.

The ASPs “were frequently able to detect certain nuclear materials when shielding was below threat guidance, and both systems had difficulty detecting such materials when shielding was somewhat greater than threat guidance,” the GAO says in its report, Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS Improved Testing of Advanced Radiation Detection Portal Monitors, but Preliminary Results Show Limits of the New Technology (GAO-09-655).

DNDO didn’t test the ASP or PVT systems against higher levels of shielding because they are incapable of detecting threats at that point, GAO says.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency responsible for screening inbound containers and cargo for illicit radioactive materials, wants to eventually replace the PVT monitors because they give off numerous false alarms due to naturally occurring radiation.

In testing in secondary screening mode, the ASP systems outperformed handheld devices in identifying threats masked by naturally occurring radioactive material, GAO says.

“However, differences in the ability to identify certain shielded nuclear materials depended on the level of shielding, with increasing levels appearing to reduce any ASP advantages over the handheld identification devices–another indication of the fundamental limitation of passive radiation detection,” the report says.

Cost Estimates

GAO estimates that an ASP system will cost about $822,000 compared to $308,000 for a standard PVT system. CBP expects the operations and maintenance (O&M) costs to be “significantly higher” for ASP systems because of their complexity. However, the agency doesn’t know yet what the labor savings will be if a switch is made to the ASP systems.

Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, says 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 says at a June hearing examining the NAS interim report.

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, Todd Owen, acting deputy assistant commissioner within CBP’s Office of Field Operations, tells the House panel. He expects that the ASP 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.”

Raytheon [RTN] and Thermo Fisher Scientific [TMO] are developing competing ASP systems for DNDO. Testing of late has not gone well.

One company’s system has completed integration testing but had field validation suspended by CBP due to “serious performance problems that may require software revisions,” GAO says. The problems led to an increase in the number of referrals to secondary screening compared to the PVT systems, CBP says. DNDO expects the field validation testing to resume this month and says the corrective actions required adjusting sensitivity thresholds, not software.

Field validation testing will be followed by initial operational testing and evaluation to be conducted by DHS’ Science and Technology branch.

The other company’s system had problems in integration testing last fall due to software issues that led to a halt. The problem was corrected late in 2008 and the contractor expects to complete that round of testing and enter field validation testing in August, according to information provided by the House panel.

GAO says that DNDO’s testing program for the ASP systems has improved to the point of providing credible results.

The Future

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.

Morgan Keegan defense and security analyst Brian Ruttenbur believes the problems with the ASP program combined with the high cost estimates may lead to a reassessment that results in a revamping, new competition or possibly even cancellation.

The Senate in its version of the FY ’10 Homeland Security Appropriations bill isn’t sure that DNDO is the right organization for acquiring the ASP systems as the agency is more of a research and development organization.

“As the deployment of the domestic nuclear detection architecture has matured it may be more appropriate for future acquisition dollars to be placed in the operational components that perform these activities: Coast Guard; CBP; and TSA (Transportation Security Administration,” the Senate says. “Further, the [Appropriations] Committee encourages the department to evaluate the transfer of remaining balances within this account to the appropriate operational component.” The House version of the bill doesn’t contain similar language.