DHS official pushes launch of new nuclear detectors

Detectors carry a hefty price tag of $350,000 per unit, a big increase over the $80,000 the current machines cost.

NEW YORK - Heartened by recent test results in Nevada, the director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office said Wednesday he expects to recommend next-generation nuclear detectors be cleared for deployment in July.

The detection office, a division within the Homeland Security Department, is about halfway through a test run of new radiation detection technology at the New York Container Terminal in Staten Island.

The equipment scans seagoing containers to detect and identify radioactive material. The detectors have already undergone testing at the Energy Department's Nevada Test Site.

While DNDO Director Vayl Oxford declined to describe the results of the February and March tests in any detail, he characterized the results as positive.

"We are very optimistic that when we go to [Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff] this summer he will give us permission to go to production," Oxford said Wednesday during a tour of the Staten Island testing facility.

Detectors now deployed at the nation's ports and border crossings are adapted from technology used to detect radioactive material at scrap yards and other industrial sites. While reportedly very sensitive, they only alert to the presence of radiation and are unable to differentiate different types of radioactive substances.

That can become a problem when the machines alert to the naturally occurring radiation in materials such as granite, kitty litter or bananas. A container flagged for radiation must undergo a secondary screening process to identify the emitting material, which can take up to 20 minutes.

Port officials say there are 12 to 14 such alerts each day at the Staten Island facility, which handles 11 percent of the cargo flowing into the port of New York. At California's Long Beach port, Customs and Border Protection officials deal with as many as 400 such cases daily.

"We've got to make their life better," Oxford said.

The new detectors carry a hefty price tag of $350,000 per unit, a significant increase over the $80,000 the current machines cost.

Both the Government Accountability Office and Congress have questioned the benefits of the new system relative to the cost, and lawmakers have put a hold on a $1.2 billion plan for deployment of 1,400 machines until DHS can confirm that the technology is effective.

Three firms have each received about $15 million to develop competing prototypes of the new detectors, and despite congressional doubts Oxford expects to go to Chertoff with a recommendation for full-scale production in July.

By decreasing the number of necessary secondary inspections to a "mere fraction" of what is currently required, "we're going to be able to manage both the risk and the flow of commerce with these systems," Oxford said.

Oxford said the detection office plans to run about 10,000 containers through the test array at the Staten Island terminal. Three weeks into the testing, DNDO officials have put about 5,000 containers through the system. Once the data is complete, they will then analyze the accuracy of the identification of radioactive material.

A GAO report released Monday said Oxford's office should systematically compile test data on the existing monitors to fully understand their benefits and limitations before making the multibillion dollar investment the deployment plan requires.

The report also recommends the office provide state and local authorities with information on radiation detection technologies to help them make more informed purchasing decisions.

"We strongly agree with this statement, as the DNDO feels that bolstering preventive [radiological and nuclear] detection capabilities within the domestic interior is an essential part of our nation's defense," the detection office wrote in response.

Regarding the recommendation to compile testing data, Oxford said, "That's a prudent thing to do."

He added, however, that "some of that test data we've already looked at, and I'm not sure it's relevant to the decision we're making." Even as the office works to enhance the nuclear detection network at the nation's borders and ports, DNDO officials are enlisting help from outside experts and the intelligence community to probe gaps in the system.

In some cases, that includes testing the systems and detectors by having people trying to smuggle real nuclear material. Tests with mock terrorists have already begun, said Huban Gowadia, the detection office's assistant director for assessment.