Just last week, U.S. officials announced that the Homeland Security Department is slowing plans to roll out 1,400 monitors, each costing nearly $400,000, as part of a $1.2 billion multiyear project. In field tests, the new Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitors, or ASPs, "led to the determination that additional functional capacity is needed to meet the operational standards," a department spokeswoman announced.
The announcement, which means the machines could take another year to reach U.S. ports, comes after more than a year of sparring between DHS officials and the Government Accountability Office over how effective the technology is as well as testing methods used to evaluate it.
The debate over the new equipment has largely played out in congressional hearings. In September, Government Accountability Office officials argued that DHS testing was based on a "biased" methodology that allowed vendors an artificial edge during the evaluation of their radiation detectors, an allegation Homeland Security officials said was off base.
Officials at the Belgian port of Antwerp, however, are moving ahead with deployment of the ASPs for use in secondary screening.
"We're in the process of finalizing it now," Pascal Fias, a scientist working at the Antwerp port, said last week during an International Atomic Energy Agency-sponsored conference on nuclear trafficking here.
In the Netherlands, Dutch customs officials are already using the ASP detectors in secondary deployments and expect to eventually use them as primary scanners, Fias said.
Containers at ports are typically put through a two-phase scanning process. During the first phase, the shipping containers are sent through very sensitive detectors called plastic scintillators. Plastic scintillators can detect very low-level radiation emissions but are incapable of identifying the isotope emitting the energy.
Due to their sensitivity, they can be triggered by innocuous cargo with trace levels of natural radiation like granite, kitty litter or bananas. In one instance a load of blueberries set off Belgian alarms. The fruit exhibited trace levels of cesium contamination, a legacy from Chernobyl, Fias said.
If the primary detectors discover the presence of radiation, the shipping container is then sent through a secondary screening where customs officials use hand-held devices to determine the nature of the source.
After the latest round of GAO criticism of the DHS technology vetting process, Homeland Security officials suggested the ASP detectors would first be deployed in secondary locations and testing would continue before replacing the plastic scintillators.
While Belgian port officials have no plans to shift the ASP to a primary detection deployment - they say they have the plastic scintillators and might as well use them - the new technology is perfect for secondary screening, they say.
"For the second phase, it makes a lot of sense to use the ASP," Fias told Global Security Newswire, calling the technology currently "the best on the market."
Without the ASP detectors, custom officials must use a small, hand-held scanner to assess the entire shipping container. That is a small scanner and a large box, a combination that has led to complaints from customs officials at the port, Fias said.
By contrast, the ASP scanners are "basically a very, very big detector that can scan the whole of the container," he said. Replacing primary scanners with the new technology requires any new device to be at least a sensitive as the plastic scintillators, Fias notes, a more challenging bar to meet.
The goal with these detector upgrades, both domestically and abroad, is not necessarily increasing the level or radiation detection at ports, but rather smoothing the flow of commerce and making sure current detection regime is not disruptive. U.S. officials have repeatedly said the goal is to lower the number of false alarms at large ports such as Los Angeles/Long Beach. That port, the nation's busiest, has about 500 radiation alerts a day, and DHS officials suggest the new technology could plunge that number to less than 30.
"We want to have a low economic impact. Time is money, certainly in a port," Fias said of Antwerp. "Only 1 in 10,000 containers are delayed for more than a few hours or days."
He expects the ASPs, to be used in conjunction with x-ray scanning, to be rolled out in Antwerp by the end of next year.