Some DHS Radiation Scanners Sitting Idle, Report Finds

A truck passes through a radiation portal monitor while exiting the Port of Tacoma in Washington in October 2006. The U.S. Homeland Security Department has faced difficulties in using and accounting for all radiation detection systems deployed at 22 major seaports around the country, according to a new DHS inspector general report (AP Photo/John Froschauer).
A truck passes through a radiation portal monitor while exiting the Port of Tacoma in Washington in October 2006. The U.S. Homeland Security Department has faced difficulties in using and accounting for all radiation detection systems deployed at 22 major seaports around the country, according to a new DHS inspector general report (AP Photo/John Froschauer).

WASHINGTON -- Dozens of seaport radiation scanners are seemingly missing or sitting idle in the United States, placing in question Homeland Security Department plans to sustain the equipment intended to check inbound cargo for weapon-usable nuclear and radiological contraband, the DHS inspector general said in a new report.

The United States relies on 444 radiation portal monitors to scan all cargo containers entering the nation at its 22 most heavily trafficked seaports, according to the Jan. 29 report posted online this week. The detection effort meets one requirement under a 2006 law; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last month played down the legislation's mandate for all U.S.-bound cargo by July 2014 to undergo scanning at foreign seaports.

In checks on seven of the 22 domestic facilities, investigators found 19 portal radiation detectors were going unused and five additional machines were operating only occasionally.

Studies initially predicted the devices would remain usable for one decade, meaning that existing machines would reach the end of their life spans between 2014 and 2021, the report says.

Homeland Security spent roughly $623 million to install and maintain the devices between fiscal years 2002 and 2011, but the department has cut annual expenditures from roughly $25 million to about $5 million, the report indicates. The Obama administration canceled plans to develop and field a new generation of scanners without updating its strategy for existing detection gear.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state fields and installs portal radiation detectors at seaports on a contract basis. The DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office sustains the gear for its first 12 months in operation, after which Customs and Border Patrol personnel assume responsibility for its oversight.

"CBP and DNDO should better coordinate to fully utilize, promptly relocate, and properly maintain inventory to best use resources and to continue screening of all containerized cargo entering U.S. seaports," the analysis states, later noting "there are limited funds to sustain the RPM [Radiation Portal Monitor] Program and that there are no plans to replace the RPMs when they are no longer useful."

No agency has attempted a complete report on the status of every portal scanner, and no fewer than 10 detection systems were "missing among the records," auditors wrote.

Customs and Border Protection reports on detection systems received from the laboratory, but counts the scanners as single entities "without tracking the many different pieces that make up each RPM system such as panels, computers, booths and enunciators," the IG assessment states.

Homeland Security also has had problems maintaining accurate counts of vehicle-mounted cargo radiation scanners, according to the report. Auditors said they could only locate 23 of 32 machines that two seaports had been documented to possess.

The agencies' failure to keep track of equipment means they "are not properly accounting for government property," auditors wrote. "Further, the components cannot be assured that the equipment is being maintained, utilized and relocated to make the best use of its limited life and screening capabilities."

In a letter to Deputy Inspector General Charles Edward, Assistant Customs and Border Protection Commissioner James Tomsheck said his agency and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office concurred with the findings of the report.

"The Radiation Portal Monitor (RPM) Program is an important and significant activity in CBP's execution of its mission to interdict illicit radioactive materials and to prevent their entry into the United States," Tomsheck wrote. "CBP is pleased to note the [inspector general's] positive recognition that CBP's execution of the RPM Program is consistent with the requirements of the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006, as amended, to scan all containerized cargo entering the United States at the 22 seaports with the greatest container volume."

Auditors successfully urged the department to assign a specific office to oversee movements and use of the detection equipment; the DHS agencies said they would establish a time line by next January for meeting the goal.

The offices intend by May to meet an IG call to provide guidance on monitoring and issuing declarations about the use of the scanner technology at seaports. The DHS branches said they would also establish by September a procedure requested by investigators for guaranteeing that use of the gear falls into line with seaport security demands.

The agencies as of last August had fielded a total of 1,459 radiation portal monitors at U.S. points of entry, according to the assessment. The systems have examined more than 679 million cargo containers for illicit radiation sources, generating over 2.8 million alarms, auditors wrote. No scanner notification as of last year had led to the discovery of material intended to cause harm, according to earlier reporting.

February 7, 2013
About

WASHINGTON -- Dozens of seaport radiation scanners are seemingly missing or sitting idle in the United States, placing in question Homeland Security Department plans to sustain the equipment intended to check inbound cargo for weapon-usable nuclear and radiological contraband, the DHS inspector general said in a new report.

Countries