Homeland Security cancels troubled radiation detector effort

The agency spent roughly $230 million over five years attempting to develop and field the monitoring system.

The Homeland Security Department has terminated the program to develop the next generation of radiation detection monitors, a senior agency official announced on Tuesday.

"The [Advanced Spectroscopic Portal] will not proceed as originally envisioned. We will not seek certification or large-scale deployment of the ASP," Warren Stern, director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, told the House Homeland Security technology subcommittee.

The agency spent roughly $230 million over five years attempting to develop and field the monitor system. The machines were designed to not only detect radiation but identify the nature of its source. Proponents claimed the devices, each with a price tag of around $822,000, would eliminate time-consuming secondary inspections to determine whether a material was dangerous.

Homeland Security officials had expected to spend $1.2 billion to deploy 1,400 of the machines to scan cargo containers for potential nuclear or radiological weapons materials at U.S. points of entry. However, the system was found to be susceptible to false alarms and other significant technical troubles.

A recent Government Accountability Office examination concluded the program would cost Homeland Security an additional $300 million in the next four years even though the technology had not been thoroughly tested.

Instead, the department will deploy the 13 monitors that have been built and purchased to glean data that would help define requirements for a commercial competition to design and build a future spectroscopic portal, according to Stern. Four of the devices are already deployed, he noted without specifying locations.

"The benefits in making use of the money we've invested by learning technically from them ... are worthwhile applications for the existing systems," the DNDO chief said.

The agency will compensate for the absence of the new monitors in part with the deployment of new hand-held radiation detection devices called the RadSeeker, Stern said. Homeland Security intends to make its final, large-scale procurement decision on that system this Thursday, he added.

One of the main factors in the decision to end the program, according to Stern, was the release in January of a National Academy of Sciences report that was deeply critical of Homeland Security's testing regimen for the effort. In the rush to field the technology, the department conducted poorly designed performance tests that undermined officials' ability to "draw reliable conclusions" about whether the costly new equipment would work as envisioned, the document said.

Meanwhile, field validation tests determined that some operational requirements established at the beginning of the program were "no longer valid," according to Stern.

"We had to make a course correction," he told the panel.

News of the ASP cancellation was greeted cautiously by a representative of the Government Accountability Office, which has issued a series of blistering reports on the effort over the years.

"It helps turn the page for DNDO and the department," David Maurer, director of the GAO Homeland Security and Justice division, told lawmakers. "This has been a troubling chapter for them for many years and it's good to see they're moving on."

The decision also allows the department to focus more broadly on its global nuclear detection architecture, rather than "fixate" on the ASP system, he added.

The detection architecture is the worldwide network of sensors, telecommunications, personnel and measures used to detect, identify and report the potential movement of illicit nuclear and radioactive materials or weapons.

Maurer said the plan to deploy the existing 13 monitors "sounds like a reasonable approach" that would help the department better define technological requirements for detection technology in the future. However, the government auditor warned the agency not to neglect the other systems within the detection architecture.

Stern said there would be an additional cost to deploy the already procured devices but that a budgetary request has not yet been made.

"Relative to the cost of this program, it will be quite small," the DNDO chief said.

The panel's ranking Democrat, Yvette Clarke, N.Y., asked if the government would be able to recoup some of its money. "We're just trying to find money wherever we can," she said.

Stern said the contract with ASP manufacturer Raytheon ended last month and he was unsure if the department would be able to get any of its money back.

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., repeatedly expressed concern that hand-held radiation detection devices and the department's existing polyvinyl toluene portal monitors would not be enough to spot smuggled nuclear material at the nation's ports.

"The magnitude of the challenge ... would require us to come up with something that allows us to do something more effectively" than with hand-held, personal systems, he said.

"I don't want to mislead you, PVT is never going to be as effective in identifying nuclear material as a spectroscopic portal," Stern replied. Hand-held detectors also will not be as effective because "size matters," he added.

The "fundamental problem" with the next generation detection system was "that we had a number of setbacks and in the interim ... companies have developed a number of portals that again are commercially available," he later explained. "It is my view and the department's view that it doesn't make sense to proceed as we have been proceeding but instead take a step back and say, 'The world has changed. The amount of money we invested many years ago was invested and there's nothing we can do about that.'"

Despite that conclusion, the detection office and the department do not plan on abandoning the concept of such a system altogether, Stern told lawmakers.

There is "no question that I believe that at some point in the future America will have a next generation spectroscopic system," he asserted. "The decision today is it does not have to be the specific system we've been working on."

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