Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, combating terrorism has been one of the nation's highest priorities. As part of that effort, preventing nuclear and radioactive material from being smuggled into the United States -- perhaps to be used by terrorists in a nuclear weapon or in a radiological dispersal device (a "dirty bomb") -- has become a key national security objective.
On April 15, 2005, the president directed the establishment, within the Department of Homeland Security, of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), whose duties include acquiring and supporting the deployment of radiation detection equipment.
In October 2006, Congress enacted the SAFE Port Act, which made DNDO responsible for the development, testing, acquisition and deployment of a system to detect radiation at US ports of entry. An important component of this system is the deployment of radiation portal monitors, large stationary detectors through which cargo containers and trucks pass as they enter the United States.
Prior to DNDO's creation, another DHS agency -- U.S. Customs and Border Protection -- managed programs for deployment of radiation detection equipment. In 2002, CBP began the radiation portal monitor project, deploying radiation detection equipment at U.S. ports of entry. This program initially deployed portal monitors, known as polyvinyl toluene monitors (PVT), and handheld detection technologies, such as radioactive isotope identification devices (RIID).
CBP also established a system of standard operating procedures to guide its officers in the use of this equipment. Current procedures include conducting primary inspections with PVTs to detect the presence of radioactivity, and secondary inspections with PVTs and RIIDs to confirm and identify the source and determine whether it constitutes a threat. After its creation, DNDO assumed responsibility for the development, testing, and deployment of radiation detection equipment, while CBP maintained its role of operating the equipment at US ports of entry.
Currently deployed PVTs are capable of detecting radiation, but they have an inherent limitation because they are unable to identify specific radioactive isotopes and therefore cannot distinguish between dangerous and benign materials. CBP officers also use RIIDs to identify different types of radioactive material. However, RIIDs are limited in their ability to identify nuclear material. DNDO believes that these deficiencies may delay legitimate commerce at ports of entry, and that CBP may use an inordinate amount of inspection resources for radiation detection at the expense of other missions, such as drug interdiction.
A Government Accountability Office independent cost estimate suggests that from 2007 through 2017 the total cost of DNDO's program to equip US ports of entry with radiation detection equipment will likely be about $3.1 billion, but could range from $2.6 billion to $3.8 billion. Analysts based their estimate on the anticipated costs of DNDO implementing its 2006 project execution plan, the most recent official documentation of the program.
According to this plan, DNDO will buy and deploy multiple types of ASPs, including those designed to screen rail cars, and airport and seaport cargo, as well as mobile ASPs --spectroscopic equipment mounted on vehicles -- to provide greater flexibility in screening commerce. The project execution plan also targets several types of PVTs for purchase and deployment. DNDO's cost estimate of $2.1 billion to equip US ports of entry with radiation detection equipment is unreliable because it omits major project costs and relies on a flawed methodology.
For example, although the normal life expectancy of the standard cargo ASP is about 10 years, DNDO's estimate considers only 8 years--fiscal years 2006 through 2013. According to DNDO officials, OMB's budget submission software allows only a limited number of years of costs to be included. Furthermore, DNDO's cost estimate does not include all of the elements of the ASPs' life cycle, as it omits estimates for maintenance and operational sustainment of ASPs.
Finally, contrary to DHS guidelines, DNDO did not provide detailed documentation of ASP costs, which raises questions about the adequacy and reliability of the agency's estimates. Although the GAO repeatedly requested documentation of DNDO's current official deployment strategy, the agency did not provide such official information. In fact, DNDO officials continued to cite the 2006 project execution plan as the most recent official deployment documentation.
In July 2008, the agency provided a 1-page spreadsheet of summary information outlining DNDO's current plans to buy and deploy ASPs and PVTs. The analysis of these summary data indicates the total cost to deploy standard cargo portals over the period 2008 through 2017 will be about $2.0 billion, but could range from $1.7 billion to $2.3 billion. These data also indicate that between fiscal years 2008 and 2014, DNDO plans to deploy 717 ASP and 1,005 PVT standard cargo portals.
Furthermore, agency officials acknowledged the program requirements that would have been fulfilled by the discontinued ASPs remain valid, including screening rail cars, airport cargo, and cargo at seaport terminals, but the agency has no current plans for how such screening will be accomplished. These officials told GAO personnel that the technology to accomplish these requirements likely will not be ASP monitors.
Analysts believe a comprehensive estimate of the cost to provide radiation detection equipment for U.S. ports of entry should account for meeting these objectives, even if DNDO decides that ASP technology is not suited to them.
Furthermore, the GAO recommended in their report that Congress acquire a complete understanding of DNDO's deployment strategy before approving additional ASP program funds.
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. He's former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed "Crack City" by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for a number of organizations. He's also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country. He writes for many police and crime magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer, Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and others. He's appeared as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, Fox News, etc. His book Assume The Position is available at Amazon.Com, Booksamillion.com, and can be ordered at local bookstores. Kouri holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master of arts in public administration and he's a board certified protection professional.