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Testimony: 

Before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Committee on 
Science and Technology, House of Representatives: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 
GAO: 

For Release on Delivery: 
Expected at 1:00 p.m. EST:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009: 

Combating Nuclear Smuggling: 

Recent Testing Raises Issues About the Potential Effectiveness of 
Advanced Radiation Detection Portal Monitors: 

Statement of Gene Aloise, Director:
Natural Resources and Environment: 

GAO-10-252T: 

GAO Highlights: 

Highlights of GAO-10-252T, a testimony before the Subcommittee on 
Investigations and Oversight, Committee on Science and Technology, 
House of Representatives. 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

The Department of Homeland Securityís (DHS) Domestic Nuclear Detection 
Office (DNDO) is responsible for addressing the threat of nuclear 
smuggling. Radiation detection portal monitors are key elements in the 
nationís defenses against such threats. DHS has sponsored testing to 
develop new monitors, known as advanced spectroscopic portal (ASP) 
monitors, to replace radiation detection equipment being used at ports 
of entry. DNDO expects that ASPs may offer improvements over current-
generation portal monitors, particularly the potential to identify as 
well as detect radioactive material and thereby to reduce both the risk 
of missed threats and the rate of innocent alarms, which DNDO considers 
to be key limitations of radiation detection equipment currently used 
by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at U.S. ports of entry. However, 
ASPs cost significantly more than current generation portal monitors. 
Due to concerns about ASPsí cost and performance, Congress has required 
that the Secretary of Homeland Security certify that ASPs provide a 
significant increase in operational effectiveness before obligating 
funds for full-scale ASP procurement. In May 2009, GAO issued a report 
(GAO-09-655) on the status of the ongoing ASP testing round. 

This testimony (1) discusses the principal findings and recommendations 
from GAOís May report on ASP testing and (2) updates those findings 
based on information from DNDO and CBP officials on the results of 
testing conducted since the reportís issuance. DHS, DNDO, and CBPís 
oral comments on GAOís new findings were included as appropriate. 

What GAO Found: 

GAOís May 2009 report on ASP testing found that DHS increased the rigor 
in comparison with previous tests and thereby added credibility to the 
test results. However, GAOís report also questioned whether the 
benefits of the ASPs justify its high cost. In particular, the DHS 
criteria for a significant increase in operational effectiveness 
require only a marginal improvement in the detection of certain weapons-
usable nuclear materials, which DNDO considers a key limitation of 
current-generation portal monitors. The marginal improvement required 
of ASPs is particularly notable given that DNDO has not completed 
efforts to fine-tune current-generation equipment to provide greater 
sensitivity. Moreover, the test results showed that ASPs performed 
better than current-generation portal monitors in detection of such 
materials concealed by light shielding approximating the threat 
guidance for setting detection thresholds, but that differences in 
sensitivity were less notable when shielding was slightly below or 
above that level. Finally, DNDO had not yet updated its cost-benefit 
analysis to take into account the results of ASP testing and did not 
plan to complete computer simulations that could provide additional 
insight into ASP capabilities and limitations prior to certification 
even though test delays have allowed more time to conduct the 
simulations. DNDO officials believed the other tests were sufficient 
for ASPs to demonstrate a significant increase in operational 
effectiveness. GAO recommended that DHS assess ASPs against the full 
potential of current-generation equipment and revise the program 
schedule to allow time to conduct computer simulations and to uncover 
and resolve problems with ASPs before full-scale deployment. DHS agreed 
to a phased deployment that should allow time to uncover ASP problems 
but disagreed with the other recommendations, which GAO believes remain 
valid. 

The results of DNDOís most recent round of field testing raise 
continuing issues. In July 2009, DNDO resumed the field testing of ASPs 
that it initiated in January 2009 but suspended because of serious 
performance problems. However, the July tests also revealed critical 
performance deficiencies. For example, the ASP had a high number of 
false positive alarms for the detection of certain nuclear materials. 
According to CBP, these false alarms are very disruptive in a port 
environment because any alarm for this type of nuclear material causes 
CBP to take enhanced security precautions. To address these false 
alarms, DNDO plans to modify the ASP to make these monitors less 
sensitive to these nuclear materials and thereby diminishing the ASPsí 
capability. As GAO reported earlier this year, previous testing results 
demonstrated that the ASPs represented a marginal improvement in 
detecting these materials. By reducing the sensitivity to nuclear 
materials even further, it is uncertain exactly what improvement in 
detecting these materials the ASPs are providing or whether DNDO might 
be able to achieve a similar level of performance as the modified ASPs 
by improving the current-generation portal monitors that are already in 
place. In addition, the July 2009 testing also identified a critical 
equipment failure, including an alert malfunction, which DNDO is taking 
steps to resolve for future testing. 

View [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-252T] or key 
components. For more information, contact Gene Aloise at (202) 512-3841 
or aloisee@gao.gov. 

[End of section] 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: 

I am pleased to be here today to discuss GAO's work on the Department 
of Homeland Security's (DHS) testing of advanced spectroscopic portal 
(ASP) radiation detection monitors. One mission of U.S. Customs and 
Border Protection (CBP), an agency within DHS, includes screening cargo 
and vehicles coming into this country for smuggled nuclear or 
radiological material that could be used in an improvised nuclear 
device or radiological dispersal device (a "dirty bomb"). To screen 
cargo at ports of entry, CBP conducts primary inspections with 
radiation detection equipment called portal monitors--large stationary 
detectors through which cargo containers and vehicles pass as they 
enter the United States. When radiation is detected, CBP conducts 
secondary inspections using a second portal monitor to confirm the 
original alarm and a handheld radioactive isotope identification device 
to identify the radiation's source and determine whether it constitutes 
a threat. 

The polyvinyl toluene (PVT) portal monitors CBP currently uses for this 
screening can detect radiation but cannot identify the type of material 
causing an alarm. As a result, the monitors' radiation alarms can be 
set off even by shipments of bananas, kitty litter, or granite tile 
because these materials contain small amounts of benign, naturally 
occurring radioactive material. To address the limitations of current- 
generation portal monitors, DHS's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office 
(DNDO) in 2005 began to develop and test ASPs, which are designed to 
both detect radiation and identify the source.[Footnote 1] DNDO hopes 
to use the new portal monitors to replace at least some PVTs currently 
used for primary screening, as well as PVTs and handheld identification 
devices currently used for secondary screening. 

Since 2006, we have been reporting on issues associated with the cost 
and performance of the ASPs and the lack of rigor in testing this 
equipment. For example, we found that tests DNDO conducted in early 
2007 used biased test methods that enhanced the apparent performance of 
ASPs and did not use critical CBP operating procedures that are 
fundamental to the performance of current handheld radiation detectors. 
[Footnote 2] In addition, in 2008 we estimated the lifecycle cost of 
each standard cargo version of the ASP (including deployment costs) to 
be about $822,000, compared with about $308,000 for the PVT standard 
cargo portal, and the total program cost for DNDO's latest plan for 
deploying radiation portal monitors--which relies on a combination of 
ASPs and PVTs and does not deploy radiation portal monitors at all 
border crossings--to be about $2 billion.[Footnote 3] 

Concerned about the performance and cost of the ASP monitors, Congress 
required the Secretary of Homeland Security to certify that the 
monitors will provide a "significant increase in operational 
effectiveness" before DNDO obligates funds for full-scale ASP 
procurement.[Footnote 4] In response, CBP, DNDO, and the DHS management 
directorate jointly issued criteria for determining whether the new 
technology provides a significant increase in operational 
effectiveness. The primary screening criteria require that the new 
portal monitors detect potential threats as well as or better than 
PVTs, show improved performance in detection of highly enriched uranium 
(HEU), and reduce by 80 percent the number of innocent alarms that are 
sent to secondary inspection. To meet the secondary screening criteria, 
the new portal monitors must reduce the probability of misidentifying 
special nuclear material (e.g., HEU and plutonium) and the average time 
to conduct secondary screenings. 

DNDO designed and coordinated a new series of tests, originally 
scheduled to run from April 2008 through September 2008, to determine 
whether the new portal monitors meet the certification criteria and are 
ready for deployment. Key phases of this round of testing include 
concurrent testing led by DNDO of the new and current equipment's 
ability to detect and identify threats and of ASPs' readiness to be 
integrated into operations for both primary and secondary screening at 
ports of entry; field validation testing led by CBP at four northern 
and southern border crossings and two seaports; and an independent 
evaluation, led by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate at one of 
the seaports, of the new portal monitors' effectiveness and 
suitability. 

In May 2009, we reported on the results of the then-current round of 
ASP testing.[Footnote 5] The findings from that report were based on 
completed tests and preliminary results available at the time. Testing 
on ASPs has continued since that report was issued. Today my testimony 
will (1) discuss the principal findings and recommendations from our 
May report and (2) update those findings based on the results of DNDO's 
July 2009 ASP field validation testing. The findings we are presenting 
today are based on our previous ASP reports and updated with 
information collected during interviews with DNDO and CBP officials. We 
also reviewed testing results in a report on the July 2009 tests from 
the ASP Field Validation Advisory Panel, a panel made up of officials 
from CBP, DNDO, and a national laboratory established to examine 
testing results and provide recommendations. On November 12, 2009, we 
briefed DHS, CBP, and DNDO officials on the findings of our updated 
work. During the briefing, CBP and DNDO officials provided oral 
comments and offered additional information and clarifications we 
included in this testimony as appropriate. Both our prior work and our 
updated work were conducted in accordance with generally accepted 
government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and 
perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to produce 
a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit 
objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable 
basis for our statement today. 

Improved Testing Rigor Discussed in Our May 2009 Report Demonstrates 
Limitations of ASPs: 

Our May 2009 report on the then-current round of ASP testing found that 
DHS increased the rigor of ASP testing over that of previous tests, and 
that a particular area of improvement was in the performance testing at 
the Nevada Test Site, where DNDO compared the capability of ASP and 
current-generation equipment to detect and identify nuclear and 
radiological materials. For example, unlike in prior tests, the plan 
for the 2008 performance test stipulated that the contractors who 
developed the equipment would not be involved in test execution. This 
improvement addressed concerns we previously raised about the potential 
for bias and provided increased credibility to the results. 
Nevertheless, based on the following factors, in our report we 
questioned whether the benefits of the new portal monitors justify the 
high cost: 

* The DHS criteria for a significant increase in operational 
effectiveness. Our chief concern with the criteria is that they require 
only a marginal improvement over current-generation portal monitors in 
the detection of certain weapons-usable nuclear materials during 
primary screening. DNDO considers detection of such materials to be a 
key limitation of current-generation portal monitors. The marginal 
improvement required of ASPs to meet the DHS criteria is problematic 
because the detection threshold for the current-generation portal 
monitors does not specify a level of radiation shielding that smugglers 
could realistically use. Officials from the Department of Energy (DOE), 
which designed the threat guidance DHS used to set the detection 
threshold, and national laboratory officials told us that the current 
threshold is based not on an analysis of the capabilities of potential 
smugglers to take effective shielding measures but rather on the 
limited sensitivity of PVTs to detect anything more than certain 
lightly shielded nuclear materials. DNDO officials acknowledge that 
both the new and current-generation portal monitors are capable of 
detecting certain nuclear materials only when unshielded or lightly 
shielded. The marginal improvement in detection of such materials 
required of ASPs is particularly notable given that DNDO has not 
completed efforts to fine-tune PVTs' software using a technique called 
"energy windowing" that could improve the PVTs' sensitivity to nuclear 
materials. DNDO officials expect they can achieve small improvements in 
sensitivity through energy windowing, but DNDO has not yet completed 
efforts to fine-tune the PVTs' software. In contrast to the marginal 
improvement required in detection of certain nuclear materials, the 
primary screening requirement to reduce the rate of innocent alarms by 
80 percent could result in hundreds of fewer secondary screenings per 
day, thereby reducing CBP's workload. In addition, the secondary 
screening criteria, which require ASPs to reduce the probability of 
misidentifying special nuclear material by one-half, address the 
limitations of relatively small handheld devices in consistently 
locating and identifying potential threats in large cargo containers. 

* Results of performance testing and field validation. The results of 
performance tests that DNDO presented to us were mixed, particularly in 
the ASPs' capability to detect certain shielded nuclear materials 
during primary screening. The results of performance testing at the 
Nevada Test Site showed that the new portal monitors detected certain 
nuclear materials better than PVTs when shielding approximated DOE 
threat guidance, which is based on light shielding. In contrast, 
differences in system performance were less notable when shielding was 
slightly increased or decreased: both the PVTs and ASPs were frequently 
able to detect certain nuclear materials when shielding was below 
threat guidance, and both systems had difficulty detecting such 
materials when shielding was somewhat greater than threat guidance. 
With regard to secondary screening, ASPs performed better than handheld 
devices in identification of threats when masked by naturally occurring 
radioactive material. However, the differences in the ability to 
identify certain shielded nuclear materials depended on the level of 
shielding, with increasing levels appearing to reduce any ASP 
advantages over the handheld identification devices. Other phases of 
testing uncovered multiple problems in meeting requirements for 
successfully integrating the new technology into operations at ports of 
entry. Of the two ASP contractors participating in the current round of 
testing, one has fallen behind due to severe problems encountered 
during testing of ASPs' readiness to be integrated into operations at 
ports of entry ("integration testing"); the problems may require that 
the vendor redo previous test phases to be considered for 
certification. The other vendor's system completed integration testing, 
but CBP suspended field validation testing in January 2009 after 2 
weeks because of serious performance problems resulting in an overall 
increase in the number of referrals for secondary screening compared 
with existing equipment. 

* DNDO's plans for computer simulations. As of May 2009, DNDO did not 
plan to complete injection studies--computer simulations for testing 
the response of ASPs and PVTs to simulated threat objects concealed in 
cargo containers--prior to the Secretary of Homeland Security's 
decision on certification even though delays to the ASP test schedule 
have allowed more time to conduct the studies. According to DNDO 
officials, injection studies address the inability of performance 
testing to replicate the wide variety of cargo coming into the United 
States and the inability to place special nuclear material and other 
threat objects in cargo during field validation. DNDO had earlier 
indicated that injection studies could provide information comparing 
the performance of the two systems as part of the certification process 
for both primary and secondary screening. However, DNDO subsequently 
decided that performance testing would provide sufficient information 
to support a decision on ASP certification. DNDO officials said they 
would instead use injection studies to support effective deployment of 
the new portal monitors. 

* Lack of an updated cost-benefit analysis. DNDO had not updated its 
cost-benefit analysis to take into account the results of ASP testing. 
An updated analysis that takes into account the testing results, 
including injection studies, might show that DNDO's plan to replace 
existing equipment with ASPs is not justified, particularly given the 
marginal improvement in detection of certain nuclear materials required 
of ASPs and the potential to improve the current-generation portal 
monitors' sensitivity to nuclear materials, most likely at a lower 
cost. DNDO officials said they were updating the ASP cost-benefit 
analysis and planned to complete it prior to a decision on 
certification by the Secretary of Homeland Security. 

Our May report recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security 
direct DNDO to (1) assess whether ASPs meet the criteria for a 
significant increase in operational effectiveness based on a valid 
comparison with PVTs' full performance potential and (2) revise the 
schedule for ASP testing and certification to allow sufficient time for 
review and analysis of results from the final phases of testing and 
completion of all tests, including injection studies. We further 
recommended that, if ASPs are certified, the Secretary direct DNDO to 
develop an initial deployment plan that allows CBP to uncover and 
resolve any additional problems not identified through testing before 
proceeding to full-scale deployment. DHS agreed to a phased deployment 
that should allow time to uncover ASP problems but disagreed with GAO's 
other recommendations, which we continue to believe remain valid. 

Results from July 2009 Testing Raise Continuing Issues: 

The results of DNDO's most recent round of field validation testing, 
which it undertook in July 2009, after our May report was released, 
raise new issues. In July 2009, DNDO resumed the field testing of ASPs 
at four CBP ports of entry that it initiated in January 2009 but 
suspended because of serious performance problems. However, the July 
tests also revealed ASP performance problems, including two critical 
performance deficiencies. First, the ASP monitors had an unacceptably 
high number of false positive alarms for the detection of certain high- 
risk nuclear materials. According to CBP officials, these false alarms 
are very disruptive in a port environment in that any alarm for this 
type of nuclear material would cause CBP to take enhanced security 
precautions because such materials (1) could be used in producing an 
improvised nuclear device and (2) are rarely part of legitimate or 
routine cargo. Furthermore, once receiving an alarm for this type of 
nuclear material, CBP officers are required to conduct a thorough 
secondary inspection to assure themselves that no nuclear materials are 
present before permitting the cargo to enter the country. Repeated 
false alarms for nuclear materials are also causes for concern because 
such alarms could eventually have the effect of causing CBP officers to 
doubt the reliability of the ASP and be skeptical about the credibility 
of future alarms. 

Secondly, during the July testing the ASP experienced a "critical 
failure," which stemmed from a problem with a key component of the ASP 
and caused the ASP to shut down. Importantly, during this critical 
failure, the ASP did not alert the CBP officer that it had shut down 
and was no longer scanning cargo. As a result, were this not in a 
controlled testing environment, the CBP officer would have permitted 
the cargo to enter the country thinking the cargo had been scanned, 
when it had not. According to CBP officials, resolving this issue is 
important in order to assure the stability and security of the ASP. 

In addition to these key performance problems, the ASP was not able to 
reduce referrals to secondary inspection by 80 percent as required by 
the DHS criteria for a significant increase in operational 
effectiveness. According to the report from the ASP Field Validation 
Advisory Panel, a panel made up of officials from CBP, DNDO, and a 
national laboratory, the ASP was able to reduce referrals to secondary 
inspection by about 69 percent rather than the 80 percent as required 
by the DHS criteria. 

While the performance of the ASP during the July field validation 
testing raises issues about its potential readiness for deployment, 
DNDO's proposed solutions to address these performance problems raise 
additional questions about whether this equipment will provide any 
meaningful increase in the ability to detect certain nuclear materials. 
Specifically, to address the problem of false positive alarms 
indicating the presence of certain nuclear materials, according to DNDO 
officials, DNDO has modified the ASP to make this equipment less 
sensitive to these nuclear materials. While this may address the issue 
of false positive alarms, it will also diminish the ASP capability of 
detecting a key high-risk nuclear material. Since the ASP modification, 
DNDO conducted computer simulations using a vendor-provided system 
called a "replay tool" to examine the effect of the modification on the 
ASP's performance. According to DNDO officials, the replay tool 
demonstrated that the modified ASP will still be able to detect certain 
nuclear materials better than the PVT. However, at this point, DNDO 
does not plan to retest the ASP at the Nevada Test Site where it can 
examine the effects of these modifications using actual nuclear 
materials. As we reported earlier this year, the results of the testing 
at the Nevada Test Site demonstrated that the ASPs represented a 
marginal improvement in detecting certain nuclear materials. By 
reducing the sensitivity to these materials and not retesting the 
modified ASPs against actual nuclear materials, it is uncertain exactly 
what improvement in detecting certain nuclear materials these costly 
portal monitors are providing. 

While DNDO is reducing the sensitivity of ASPs to certain nuclear 
materials, it has yet to complete efforts to improve the PVT's ability 
to detect these same materials through energy windowing. For several 
years, CBP officials have repeatedly urged DNDO officials to complete 
this research. However, it was not apparent from our discussions with 
DNDO officials if this effort is making meaningful progress with the 
development of energy windowing or when it will be completed. 
Furthermore, CBP officials stated that, depending on the outcome of 
this research, energy windowing could be the more cost effective way to 
improve detection of certain nuclear materials. In our view, ASPs being 
modified to diminish their capabilities to detect certain nuclear 
materials raises questions about whether energy windowing might be able 
to achieve a similar level of performance against these same materials 
from the PVTs that are already in place. 

Beyond reducing the sensitivity of ASPs to certain nuclear materials, 
DNDO also plans to address the issue of critical failures by, among 
other things, installing an indicator light on the ASP that will alert 
CBP officers that the ASP has experienced a mission-critical failure 
and is no longer scanning cargo. While this should address the issue of 
CBP officers not knowing that the ASP has suffered a critical failure, 
CBP officials stressed to us the need for the ASP to be stable and 
secure enough to avoid these shutdowns. 

In closing, the issues raised by the results of the July 2009 field 
validation tests provide even greater reason for DNDO to address 
recommendations from our May 2009 report. In particular, we reiterate 
the importance of our prior recommendation for DNDO to assess whether 
ASPs meet the criteria for a significant increase in operational 
effectiveness based on a valid comparison with PVTs' full performance 
potential, given that the ASPs will no longer be as effective in 
detecting certain nuclear materials. 

Mr. Chairman, this completes my prepared statement. I would be happy to 
respond to any questions that you or other Members of the Subcommittee 
may have at this time. 

GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

For further information about this testimony, please contact me at 
(202) 512-3841 or aloisee@gao.gov. Dr. Timothy Persons (Chief 
Scientist), Ned Woodward (Assistant Director), Joseph Cook, and Kevin 
Tarmann made key contributions to this testimony. Kendall Childers, 
Karen Keegan, Carol Kolarik, Jonathan Kucskar, Omari Norman, Alison 
O'Neill, and Rebecca Shea also made important contributions. 

[End of section] 

Footnotes: 

[1] DNDO was established within DHS in 2005; its mission includes 
developing, testing, acquiring, and supporting the deployment of 
radiation detection equipment at U.S. ports of entry. CBP began 
deploying portal monitors in 2002, prior to DNDO's creation, under the 
radiation portal monitor project. 

[2] Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Additional Actions Needed to Ensure 
Adequate Testing of Next Generation Radiation Detection Equipment. 
[hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-07-1247T], (Washington, 
D.C.: Sept. 18, 2007). 

[3] Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS's Program to Procure and Deploy 
Advanced Radiation Detection Portal Monitors Is Likely to Exceed the 
Department's Previous Cost Estimates. G[hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/products/AO-08-1108R], (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 22, 
2008). 

[4] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-161, 121 
Stat. 1844, 2069 (2007); Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, 
and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2009, Pub. L. No. 110-329, 121 Stat. 
3574, 3679 (2008); Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 
2010, Pub. L. No. 111-83, 123 Stat. 2142, 2167 (2009). 

[5] Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS Improved Testing of Advanced 
Radiation Detection Portal Monitors, but Preliminary Results Show 
Limits of the New Technology, [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-655] (Washington, D.C.: May 21, 
2009). 

[End of section] 

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