Combating Nuclear Smuggling:

DHS Has Made Progress Deploying Radiation Detection Equipment at U.S. Ports-of-Entry, but Concerns Remain

GAO-06-389: Published: Mar 22, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 28, 2006.

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Preventing radioactive material from being smuggled into the United States is a key national security objective. To help address this threat, in October 2002, DHS began deploying radiation detection equipment at U.S. ports-of-entry. This report reviews recent progress DHS has made (1) deploying radiation detection equipment, (2) using radiation detection equipment, (3) improving the capabilities and testing of this equipment, and (4) increasing cooperation between DHS and other federal agencies in conducting radiation detection programs.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has made progress in deploying radiation detection equipment at U.S. ports-of-entry, but the agency's program goals are unrealistic and the program cost estimate is uncertain. As of December 2005, DHS had deployed 670 portal monitors and over 19,000 pieces of handheld radiation detection equipment. However, the deployment of portal monitors has fallen behind schedule, making DHS's goal of deploying 3,034 by September 2009 unlikely. In particular, two factors have contributed to the schedule delay. First, DHS provides the Congress with information on portal monitor acquisitions and deployments before releasing any funds. However, DHS's lengthy review process has caused delays in providing such information to the Congress. Second, difficult negotiations with seaport operators about placement of portal monitors and how to most efficiently screen rail cars have delayed deployments at seaports. Regarding the uncertainty of the program's cost estimate, DHS would like to deploy advanced technology portals that will likely cost significantly more than the currently deployed portals, but tests have not yet shown that these portals are demonstrably more effective than the current portals. Consequently, it is not clear that the benefits of the new portals would be worth any increased cost to the program. Also, our analysis of the program's costs indicates that DHS may incur a $342 million cost overrun. DHS has improved in using detection equipment and in following the agency's inspection procedures since 2003, but we identified two potential issues in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspection procedures. First, although radiological materials being transported into the United States are generally required to have a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license, regulations do not require that the license accompany the shipment. Further, CBP officers do not have access to data that could be used to verify that shippers have acquired the necessary documentation. Second, CBP inspection procedures do not require officers to open containers and inspect them, although under some circumstances, doing so could improve security. In addition, DHS has sponsored research, development, and testing activities to address the inherent limitations of currently fielded equipment. However, much work remains to achieve consistently better detection capabilities. DHS seems to have made progress in coordinating with other agencies to conduct radiation detection programs; however, because the DHS office created to achieve the coordination is less than 1 year old, its working relationships with other agencies are in their early stages of development and implementation. In the future, this office plans to develop a "global architecture" to integrate several agencies' radiation detection efforts, including several international programs.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To further increase the chances that CBP officers identify illicit radiological material, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Chairman of NRC, should develop a way for CBP border officers to determine whether radiological shipments have the necessary NRC licenses and to verify the authenticity of NRC licenses that accompany such shipments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our March 2006 report on efforts to combat nuclear smuggling at U.S. borders (GAO-06-389), we recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), develop a way for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to determine whether radiological shipments have the necessary NRC licenses and to verify the authenticity of NRC licenses that accompany such shipments. Additionally, we successfully smuggled radiological material across the northern and southern U.S. borders with forged NRC licenses (GAO-06-583T). In response to our recommendation, DHS wrote on August 1, 2006, that for those shipments requiring an NRC license, CBP would work with NRC to implement policies and procedures whereby CBP officers can contact either CBP's Laboratory and Scientific Services (LSS) Technical reach back Center at the CBP National Targeting Center whenever they need assistance in verifying the authenticity of an NRC license. Furthermore, CBP field officers were to be provided with specific additional guidance on procedure to verify NRC licenses. In February 2007, we met with CBP and LSS officials and confirmed that such procedures are now in place.

    Recommendation: To increase the chances that CBP officers find illicit radiological material, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Commissioner of CBP, should consider modifying the agency's standard operating procedures for secondary inspections to include physically opening cargo containers during secondary inspections at all ports-of-entry when the external inspection does not conclusively identify the radiological material inside.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of this report, DHS officials agreed with the recommendations and committed to addressing them. In conducting work on a subsequent, related engagement GAO found that CBP CONOPS now include the option of opening up and even unloading containers and scanning the contacts as necessary in order to conclusively identify the source of radiation. This policy was observed to be standard practice at ports of entry visited by the team in the spring of 2007.

    Recommendation: To help speed seaport deployments and to help ensure that future rail deployments proceed on time, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in cooperation with the Commissioner of CBP, should develop procedures for effectively screening rail containers and develop new technologies to facilitate inspections.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of this report, DHS officials agreed with the recommendations and committed to addressing them. As of our June 30, 2010 testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS Has Made Some Progress but Not Yet Completed a Strategic Plan for Its Global Nuclear Detection Efforts or Closed Identified Gaps (GAO-10-883T), DHS had made very little progress in developing the means to scan rail cargo. We found that there is very limited systematic scanning for radiation of the roughly 4,800 loaded railcars in approximately 1,200 trains entering the United States each day from Mexico and Canada at 31 rail ports of entry. What scanning does occur is usually conducted with long-deployed hand-held radiation isotope identification devices. DHS does not expect to deploy radiation portal monitors or develop rail CONOPS until 2014 at the earliest.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DHS's substantial investment in radiation detection technology yields the greatest possible level of detection capability at the lowest possible cost, the Secretary of Homeland Security, once the costs and capabilities of advanced technology portal monitors are well understood, and before any of the new equipment is purchased, should work with the Director of DNDO to analyze the benefits and costs of deploying advanced portal monitors. This analysis should focus on determining whether any additional detection capability provided by the advanced equipment is worth its additional cost. After completing this cost-benefit analysis, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Director of DNDO, should revise its total program cost estimates to reflect current decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of this report, DHS officials agreed with the recommendations and committed to addressing them. As of May 25, 2010 this recommendation has not been implemented. In February 2010 DHS decided to consider ASPs for secondary inspection only, drastically reducing the potential procurement. As of our June 30, 2010 testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS Has Made Some Progress but Not Yet Completed a Strategic Plan for Its Global Nuclear Detection Efforts or Closed Identified Gaps (GAO-10-883T), DHS had not completed a cost-benefit analysis. During the course of our audit preparing for this testimony DHS officials would not commit to a date for completing the needed cost benefit analysis.

    Recommendation: In order to complete the radiation portal monitor deployment program, as planned, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Director of DNDO, and in concert with CBP and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), should devise a plan to close the gap between the current deployment rate and the rate needed to complete deployments by September 2009.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of this report, DHS officials agreed with the recommendations and committed to addressing them. The gap between the deployment date and the target completion date for deploying radiation portal monitors was not achieved. As shown in our June 30, 2010 testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (see Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS Has Made Some Progress but Not Yet Completed a Strategic Plan for Its Global Nuclear Detection Efforts or Closed Identified Gaps, GAO-10-883T), DHS has yet to deploy approximately one third (about 700) of radiation portal monitors called for in its deployment plan. Further, the revised Radiation Portal Monitor Program Project Execution Plan (RPMP PEP) issued in September 2006 -- 6 months after the report was issued, envisions deploying only about 2,000 radiation portal monitors by the 9/2009 date -- far short of the 3,034 mentioned as the September 2009 goal in the report.

    Recommendation: Since DHS provides the Congress with information concerning the acquisition and deployment of portal monitors, and since DHS's procedures to obtain internal agreement on this information are lengthy and cumbersome--often resulting in delays--the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) and the Commissioner of CBP, should review these approval procedures and take actions necessary to ensure that DHS submits information to the Congress early in the fiscal year.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of this report, DHS officials agreed with the recommendations and committed to addressing them. In subsequent years DHS submitted budget information in a more timely manner and later reports on this issue did not reveal this to be an ongoing problem.

    Recommendation: To ensure that CBP is receiving reliable cost and schedule data, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct PNNL to have its earned value management system validated so that it complies with guidance developed by the American National Standards Institute/ Electronic Industries Alliance. In addition, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct CBP and PNNL to conduct an Integrated Baseline Review to ensure its earned value management data is reliable for assessing risk and developing alternatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of this report, DHS officials agreed with the recommendations and committed to addressing them. When asked to provide documentation that DHS had its earned value management system validated by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and that the system met the ANSI standard, DHS officials could not do so. Accordingly, we are closing the recommendation as not implemented.

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