Officials turn to cheaper detectors to find a terrorist's nuclear materials

The government shifts gears after sinking $230 million and six years of work into detectors that did not do the job

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Trucks pass through an Advanced Spectroscopic Portal toward a security booth Wednesday, April 11, 2007 at the New York Container Terminal in the Staten Island borough of New York.

Frank Franklin II/AP

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.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who chaired Thursday’s hearing of the House subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies, called the new machines a “costly failure” and said they left the government “without the improved radiation detection equipment needed.”

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., the committee’s senior Democrat, said, “I hope that our congressional oversight has had an effect in bringing to light decisions that caused the taxpayers a lot of money with little to show,” Clarke said. “I hope we don’t see that kind of decision making again.”

Gowadia responded, “We’ve had lessons learned. We’ve definitely stepped up — based on your oversight and GAO’s recommendations — a solutions development process. All around, the rigor of our program management and execution has come far.”

David Maurer, the Government Accountability Office’s director of Homeland Security and Justice issues, told the subcommittee that Homeland Security is learning from its past mistakes and that “the best evidence of this is the department’s announcement last week that it was cancelling the ASP program.”

He attributed much of that program’s failure to a lack of coordination within the nuclear detection office, but said he was pleased with new focus on addressing that problem.

“A key challenge they face is that often times the people at DHS who were developing new technologies weren’t talking to the actual end-users,” Maurer said. “So, sometimes there were some pretty serious disconnects between folks developing technologies and those who actually ended up using them in the field. And they have plans in place now to address that problem.”

Gowadia said several of the 13 advanced portal machines already developed by her office would be handed over to state detection agencies for use in weigh stations and monitoring trucks crossing the Mexico-U.S. border.

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