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Homeland Security Says Radiation Detector Decision Coming Within Year

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(Oct. 1) -A truck in 2007 pulls a shipping container through a radiation portal scanner at the Port of Palm Beach in Florida. The new chief of the U.S. Domestic Nuclear Detection Office yesterday indicated the agency would wrap up work within a year on a next-generation detection system designed to help prevent illicit nuclear material transfers (Joe Raedle/Getty Images). (Oct. 1) -A truck in 2007 pulls a shipping container through a radiation portal scanner at the Port of Palm Beach in Florida. The new chief of the U.S. Domestic Nuclear Detection Office yesterday indicated the agency would wrap up work within a year on a next-generation detection system designed to help prevent illicit nuclear material transfers (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The newly installed head of a key U.S. Homeland Security Department office yesterday pledged to wrap up work on the next generation of radiation detection monitors within the coming year (see GSN, Sept. 16).

The department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office will also develop a long-awaited strategy to prevent the smuggling into the country of nuclear-weapon materials and deliver the blueprint to lawmakers before the end of 2010, according to DNDO chief Warren Stern.

"I believe that we are at a turning point and we are beginning to move in the right direction," Stern, who was appointed to the post in August by President Barack Obama last month, told the House Homeland Security technology subcommittee.

The Advanced Spectroscopic Portal detection system has successfully completed a battery of technical tests to determine if it can in fact find radioactive material. The device will soon begin a new round of operational and field validation tests, he said.

That leg of tests should end early next year and, if successful, would be followed by a cost-benefit analysis. That study would then be presented to the department's acquisition board, which could give the effort the green light to go to the homeland security secretary for certification, Stern told the panel. After that it would be fielded as a secondary scanning device at U.S. borders and ports of entry.

The detection office was established by presidential directive in 2005 to coordinate federal efforts to protect the United States against nuclear terrorists and designated to be the lead agency in domestic nuclear detection. Stern took over leadership of the agency in the latest stop on a decades-long career that has included stints at the CIA, the International Atomic Energy Agency and, most recently, the State Department.

He said the DHS office has trained roughly 15,000 state and local law enforcement officials across the country in radiation detection operations. It has also deployed 1,500 radiation portal monitors and 3,000 hand-held detectors to the nation's borders to support Customs and Border Protection and set up 6,500 detectors with the Coast Guard, he said.

The office has also" launched more than 250 research and development projects with National Laboratory, academic, and industrial partners, aimed at advancing detection technologies," according to a July DHS document.

Still, the agency "has had some low-profile successes and high-profile failures" in all areas of its mission, panel Chairwoman Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) said in her opening statement.

The detection office has received roughly $4 billion in funding since its inception, according to a recent Government Accountability Office statement. Some of that money was spent on expanding existing programs at other DHS components, including deploying radiation portal monitors at U.S. points of entry.

The agency spent roughly $230 million over four years attempting to develop and field the ASP system. The new machines were designed to not only detect radiation but identify the nature of its source. Proponents claimed the devices, each expected to cost approximately $822,000, would eliminate time-consuming secondary inspections to determine whether a material was in fact dangerous.

Homeland Security officials had hoped to deploy 1,400 of the machines at a cost of roughly $1.2 billion. However, in March the detection office announced it would end development of the monitors as a primary screening tool after the system was discovered to be susceptible to false alarms.

"We were led to believe that it would be a crucial aspect of primary [inspection,] not only in terms of being able to detect more precisely but also to, in essence, speed up the system," said the panel's ranking Republican, Dan Lungren (Calif.).

Clarke told Stern the program "has morphed from a promising technology offering the hope of improved security and commercial efficiency to a symbol of failure for your office."

"You have to bring that program to a satisfactory conclusion, one way or another, in the very near future. Your credibility, and the future success of DNDO, depends on it," the New York lawmaker warned.

Stern explained that the program's testing is an iterative process, a method for reaching a desired result by a repeated cycle of operations, and that it underwent field validation once before in which operational problems were identified. He did not specify what those glitches entailed.

"I will strongly caution you that proposing several more rounds of testing is not going to go over too well with me, my ranking member, or other members of this subcommittee," Clarke said.

Stern conceded that the then-nascent department moved too aggressively on the ASP effort. He could not guarantee the monitors would pass the next round of field tests.

The new DNDO chief also told the panel that the detection office would end "essentially now" the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System, which border guards would have used to detect and identify highly shielded nuclear material in vehicles and cargo containers at U.S. ports of entry.

The department canceled the acquisition phase of the program in 2007 and converted it to a research and development effort after detection office officials found that Customs and Border Protection did not want the devices because they would not properly fit in primary vehicle inspection lanes, leading to significant delays.

Stern said the need for such a technology still exists but that intense cooperation and coordination between the detection office and its potential client agencies must happen earlier in the development process.

He predicted, without elaborating, that some technology developed for the CAARS program would be incorporated into other detection office efforts.

Lungren said the troubles in the ASP and CAARS programs led him to wonder if "we accepted less than the best or the pursuit of the perfect interfered with us trying to deliver usable items that would quantitatively improve the status quo."

The detection office also plans to submit its strategic plan, dubbed the global nuclear detection architecture, before the end of the calendar year, according to Stern.

The Government Accountability Office in 2001 first suggested the program, which is intended to close existing vulnerabilities and alert federal agencies to their roles in preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear or radiological bomb within the United States.

Congressional auditors in June said a comprehensive strategic plan against nuclear terrorism could involve installing radiation detection equipment at all U.S. border crossings and ports of entry; addressing vulnerabilities and risks; identifying the mix of detection equipment that would be at various entry points and when those devices would be deployed; and determining long-term detection needs.

Yesterday, Stern said the blueprint would outline the agency's vision and objectives for the architecture, as well as performance metrics.

The strategy document would be followed by implementation plans that delve into greater detail about procedures, acquisitions, training techniques and other elements necessary to put the plan into effect, Stern told the panel. He did not say when those documents would be completed.

Stern said that while the monitor systems and strategic plan have received increased congressional and media attention "they should not be seen as a definition of DNDO."

He later added that he could certainly see a day in which most police officers in the United States are equipped with "manageable," hand-held radiation detection devices.

Stern said that goal was not practical today due to the current costs and size of such technology but that the idea "was not an outlandish concept" and could materialize sometime over the next 30 years.

The DNDO chief also pledged to increase the agency's efforts within the country, in addition to its focus on the nation's borders and ports of entry.

"We need to close all of our gaps. We can't assume that we will find materials at the borders, so if we have to assume that material will be in the U.S.," Stern told lawmakers.

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