Devices to detect radiation in cargo face scrutiny

In letter seeking an investigation, lawmakers say Homeland Security appears to be rushing a testing and certification program.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants the Government Accountability Office to audit the Homeland Security Department's plan to spend more than $1 billion on new radiation-detection technology for scanning cargo and containers entering the United States.

The lawmakers behind the appeal include: Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; panel ranking Republican Peter King of New York; and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif. On Monday, they asked GAO to review the department's program for testing and buying advanced spectroscopic portal radiation monitors.

The department announced last summer that contracts totaling about $1.15 billion over five years were awarded to Canberra Industries, Raytheon and the Thermo Electron Company to develop and deploy the new ASP monitors. Raytheon and Thermo Electron are headquartered in Waltham, Mass. Canberra Industries is based in Meriden, Conn.

ASP monitors are billed as providing increased capability to detect illicit nuclear or radiological material inside containers, with low false-alarm rates. Current monitors have been criticized for not being able to distinguish innocuous materials that emit radiation -- such as kitty litter, ceramics and bananas -- from actual threats.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed skepticism about the technology, even though they are pushing the department to scan more incoming cargo. In a report accompanying the fiscal 2007 homeland security spending bill, appropriators required the department to certify that the new monitors will provide a "significant increase in operational effectiveness."

King, Lieberman, Thompson and Waxman said in their letter to GAO that the department appears to be rushing its testing and certification program.

They noted that at a recent briefing for the staff on Lieberman's committee, Homeland Security officials "indicated that they may limit the field validation testing of ASP prototypes to two or three weeks at selected ports of entry and could initiate the certification process as early as this summer. We appreciate the department's desire to increase the tempo of [its] testing, evaluation and acquisition activities, but we question whether a few weeks" will be sufficient.

The lawmakers also asked GAO to examine "the projected costs to develop, procure, deploy, operate and maintain ASP detection sensors over a 10-year life cycle," and whether those costs are justified by the technology. They further asked GAO to review the department's estimated costs for deploying "a global nuclear-detection architecture" domestically and internationally.

"More generally, we are concerned about the management challenges that are inherent in evolutionary or spiral advanced technology development acquisitions of the type [the department] is conducting," the lawmakers add. "These challenges have the potential to produce soaring cost overruns, schedule delays or performance problems, including those that result from laudable efforts by agencies to accelerate the use of advanced technologies."