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

GAO-08-1108R: Published: Sep 22, 2008. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2008.

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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 (DHS), 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 U.S. 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 (CBP)--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 U.S. 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.

Our independent cost estimate suggests that from 2007 through 2017 the total cost of DNDO's program to equip U.S. 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. We based our 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 U.S. 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 OMB and DHS guidelines, DNDO did not provide detailed documentation of ASP costs, which raises questions about the adequacy and reliability of the agency's estimates. DNDO officials told us on several occasions during the course of our review the agency is no longer following the 2006 project execution plan. These officials told us the scope of the agency's current ASP deployment strategy has been reduced to only the standard cargo portal monitor. Although we 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. Our 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 us the technology to accomplish these requirements likely will not be ASP monitors. We 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. However, a DNDO official responsible for overseeing the agency's operations told us in August 2008 that DNDO's ASP deployment strategy could change dramatically depending on the outcome of ongoing ASP testing. In our view, it is difficult to assess the total costs of the ASP program because of the frequent changes in DNDO's deployment strategy. Furthermore, the Congress needs a complete understanding of DNDO's deployment strategy before approving additional ASP program funds.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • 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: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of DNDO to work with the Commissioner of CBP to update the projection execution plan to guide the entire radiation detection program at U.S. ports of entry. The new project execution plan should be based on documented requirements, and it should provide the agencies a flexible roadmap to acquiring, deploying, and using the most appropriate and cost-effective equipment available.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DNDO officials, the Radiation Portal Monitor (RPM) Project Execution Plan (PEP) (Revision 0) was accepted and approved by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) in December 2006. It defined the work scope, schedules, costs, and required funding to deploy radiation detection systems at CBP posts of entry (POEs). The PEP was intended to be a living document that would be reviewed and updated as necessary as the project progresses. Accordingly, since the completion of Phase 4 of the RPM Deployment Schedule (Southern Border Crossings), and in lieu of the outdated PEP, the CBP and DNDO RPM team has been deploying Radiation Portal Monitors (RPMs) in accordance with a jointly-developed (DNDO and CBP) RPM Deployment Schedule. The RPM Deployment Schedule indicates the priority of RPMs to be deployed and the locations at which the systems will be deployed, subject to the availability of funding. According to DNDO officials, the Dec 2006 PEP is still in force, but as updated and amended in the current RPM deployment schedule. Th's provides both DNDO and CBP with a roadmap for deploying the most appropriate radiation portal monitors in light of current equipment and budgetary resources available as DHS continues to deploy and update currently deployed PVTs in the wake of the cancellation of the ASP program.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of DNDO to revise DNDO's estimate of the program's cost and ensure that the estimate considers all the costs--design and development, sustainment, maintenance, deployment, and procurement--associated with its project execution plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS/DNDO ultimately embraced the cost estimated done by GAO cited in this report. This GAO comprehensive cost estimate, which was based on the most recent and ultimately final project execution plan done by DHS/DNDO for the ASP program, provided an estimate that considered all the costs associated with the ASP program -- including design and development, sustainment, maintenance, deployment, and procurement. This cost estimate information, according to DHS officials, informed the Secretary's eventual decision to terminate the ASP program -- a decision that was first announced during Congressional testimony by the director of DNDO in July 2011 and confirmed in an October 3, 2011 letter from Secretary Napolitano to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of DNDO to Communicate this revised estimate to the Congress so that it is fully apprised of the program's scope and funding requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS/DNDO ultimately embraced the cost estimated done by GAO cited in this report. This GAO comprehensive cost estimate, which was based on the most recent and ultimately final project execution plan done by DHS/DNDO for the ASP program, provided an estimate that considered all the costs associated with the ASP program -- including design and development, sustainment, maintenance, deployment, and procurement. This cost estimate information was communicated to Congress in this report, and, according to DHS officials, informed the Secretary's eventual decision to terminate the ASP program. Because of the Secretary's decision to terminate the program -- first announced in Director Stern's July 2011 testimony before a House Homeland Security subcommittee and confirmed by Secretary Napolitano's October 3, 2011 letter to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee -- the program's scope was eliminated and there would be no further funding requirements.

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