DHS considers nuclear detector tests in New York

The Homeland Security Department is scheduled to decide this week whether to formally begin testing next-generation radiation detectors at a sea cargo terminal in New York City.

Following approval to begin testing at the New York Container Terminal on Staten Island, the portal machines would be put in place for about four weeks -- enough time to send 10,000 shipping containers through them, said Vayl Oxford, head of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. The new technology would operate alongside the current detectors and DHS officials would evaluate the rate of false alarms.

Even as the detection office prepares to put the new machines through real-world paces, doubts persist in Congress about the value of the new technology.

Congress has blocked any additional funding for the new detectors until the homeland security secretary could assure Congress of the efficacy of the detectors. It is all part of a push and pull the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is in the middle of on Capitol Hill, Oxford said.

"We find ourselves in an interesting tug of war," he told reporters. "There's this 'Do it faster.' And in the other case 'Slow down and make sure you do it right.'"

The Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitors are designed to detect radiation and identify the source material. That would allow screeners to determine if the radiation source is the potassium in a shipment of bananas or the radiation emitted by a material of concern such as uranium or plutonium. The large number of secondary inspections currently required would be reduced, Oxford said.

The technology presently in place throws up the same red flag for all radiation regardless if it comes from natural sources or a radiological "dirty bomb." Discriminating between the two requires secondary screening with handheld detectors.

Lawmakers and the Government Accountability Office, however, have questioned the $377,000 price tag for each machine, which is more than four times the cost Homeland Security cites for the cargo screeners now in use. There are plans to spend $1.2 billion on the new detectors.

"DNDO's cost-benefit analysis does not provide a sound analytical basis for its decision to purchase and deploy the new portal monitors," Gene Aloise, a GAO expert on nuclear issues, told a House Homeland Security technology subcommittee Wednesday. "The data used in the analysis was incomplete and unreliable, and as a result we do not have any confidence in it."

Aloise said the detection office assumed the portals would identify highly enriched uranium 95 percent of the time, when in reality the number was much lower. Tests conducted in 2005 indicated the three types of radiation monitors selected could only correctly identify highly enriched uranium about half the time.

DHS analysis also used skewed data on the current technology's performance that made the second-generation machine look better by comparison, he said.

"We're a fact-based organization, and we believe cost-benefit analyses ought to be based on fact," Aloise told the committee.

Oxford said that 95 percent is an ideal goal for HEU identification. He expressed confidence that the next-generation screeners would reduce false alarms and alleviate pressure on Customs and Border Protection agents forced to conduct secondary inspections to determine sources of radiation.

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