Federal officials in charge of detecting dangerous nuclear materials charted a new strategy at a House hearing on July 26, in the aftermath of the government’s failed attempt to build large, advanced radiation scanners for ports and border crossings.
Huban Gowadia, the acting director for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, said her office will sharply increase the use of hand-held monitors, which she said are both cheaper and more reliable than the stationary scanners the government spent six years trying to develop.
But she emphasized that the task of preventing the importation of dangerous nuclear materials — including those that could be fashioned into so-called “dirty bombs” — remained an “inherently difficult technical task,” and offered no near-term, comprehensive solution.
The nuclear detection office, part of the Homeland Security department, sunk $230 million into developing 13 Advanced Spectroscopic Portals that scientists and nuclear security experts assessed as a bad investment.
In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences reported that much of the nuclear detection office’s testing on its own product was “misleading.” The academy found that the new machines, despite their high price tag, offered little improvement over previous technology and even performed worse in some key areas, such as detecting radiation that would have been “masked,” or concealed in lead lining, for example.
The new machines cost $1.2 million each to develop — twice as much as older radiation monitors that the government deployed at nearly 600 locations after the 2001 terrorist attacks. According to the Raytheon Corporation, one of the developers of the new machines, the older ones were unable to distinguish between genuine threats and naturally-radioactive fertilizer or bananas — requiring costly second inspections whenever they alarm.